Back-to-school photos are likely flooding your social media feed and conjuring up bittersweet memories of awkward adolescence and teenage angst. But for many girls around the world, this universal rite of passage contains an extra layer of strife and uncertainty. Questions of what to wear, what not to say, whom to befriend and how to be seen are compounded by the fear of where their next meal will come from, the social stigma of having a period at school and the very real threat of being married off before they even make it to 7th grade.
According to UNESCO, 130 million girls around the world are missing from classrooms. Issues like child marriage, access to proper sanitation facilities and gender-based violence can make it difficult to access an education – and the effects can last a lifetime.
This is especially important when you consider that for each additional year a girl remains in school, she earns 10-20 percent more income as an adult. (UNICEF)
One significant barrier to education is lack of access to nutritious food. Fifty percent of adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries don’t eat three meals a day, with most skipping breakfast (USAID, 2018). Providing meals during the school day significantly improves girls’ school enrollment and attendance rates. Project Concern International’s (PCI’s) McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, feeds over 280,000 students worldwide. The program provides a daily meal so that hunger doesn’t stunt their development or distract them from their studies.
The sight of Violet eating a healthy lunch used to be as unpredictable as her presence in the classroom. Now she is one of more than 169,000 children in Tanzania who is provided with an opportunity to fill her stomach and mind thanks to PCI’s program. These meals are a primary source of nutrition for many in Violet’s village and help students come to class eager to participate.
Another obstacle keeping adolescent girls from attending school is the lack of proper water and sanitation facilities. Many girls around the world do not attend school when they have their periods, but PCI is working to implement solutions that will address these needs, including in Tanzania, where they have built gender-specific school bathrooms and installed running water. Now girls do not have to fall behind the boys in their studies due to unnecessary absences.
Beyond basic needs like food and sanitation, safety issues can interfere with a girl’s ability to succeed. There are an estimated 40 million human trafficking victims across the world, many of them being women and girls. And in the United States, one in every six women will be a victim of sexual assault at some point in their lives. In San Diego, there’s no neighborhood that remains untouched by human trafficking. The underground sex industry in San Diego County generates $810 million annually, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation ranks San Diego among the top 13 U.S. cities with the highest incidences of child sex trafficking. (Carpenter, A. C. and Gates, J. 2016)
Through the Girls Only! program, PCI works with San Diego schools and community organizations to teach girls ages 8-15 about the signs and risk factors of human trafficking. The goal is to prevent them from getting involved with drugs, gangs, sex trafficking and the criminal justice system by building their self-esteem and empowering them to make healthy choices.
Farther south, on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, adolescent girls find themselves in the crosshairs of the country’s struggle with the drug trade and the violence that accompanies it. PCI’s POSsibilities (Peace, Opportunity, Security) Project in Nicaragua focuses on building leadership to educate and empower neighborhoods to combat the threats of drugs and violence. Concerned citizens are working to take back their communities and make them safer, which can open a world of opportunity for girls.
Shanara, 23, is a youth promoter working to educate young people on living safer, healthier lives. She goes into her Puerto Cabezas neighborhood, builds connections with youth and talks to them about issues like violence and substance abuse. Shanara is one of 584 youth trained as lead advocates in promoting citizen security, who have in turn trained over 3,800 other youth and community members. Her role serves as an example for younger adolescent girls and helps make their neighborhood a safer place to learn and grow.
Once girls have the necessary support to attend school, it is also important to ensure there are programs that give them skills to fuel their ambition.
The New Seemapuri area of Delhi, India, is a literal wasteland of potential, where scores of children—primarily girls—spend their days digging through trash. As “ragpickers,” they collect items that can be recycled for what amounts to pennies. Recognizing the ways in which this burden keeps girls out of school and trapped in poverty, PCI opened a vocational training center to give them a safe place to learn marketable new skills. In addition to taking classes in dressmaking, tailoring and computer technology, students work with mentors to build their confidence, critical thinking and communication skills.
Ruksana comes from a poor family and has never set foot inside a classroom. Even though she stays at home so her sisters can continue their education, Ruksana wants more for herself than the life many in Seemapuri assume is enough for women and girls. After attending PCI’s vocational training center, Ruksana started her own business at home and makes 6,000 rupees a month. “Now I can earn and save money for my future,” Ruksana says. “PCI gave me the confidence.”
If you want to live in a world where adolescent girls are free to dream beyond the limits of their hardships and become strong, healthy women, please visit our site to learn more about how these girls are transforming their communities.
Written by Ashley Williams and Maureen Simpson