Art by Daiana Feuer

Global Economy

Photo by Art by Daiana Feuer

Time to Move Miley Over—These Are the Real Girls We Should Be Talking About

Education and ending child marriage are keys to unlocking girls' potential and jumpstarting the global economy.

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With 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty, it’s time to take some of the attention we’re heaping on Miley and give it to the girls who have real trouble growing up. It happens to be a banner week for just such a thing. For starters, Friday is International Day of the Girl. And, teen-education advocate Malala Yousafzai is poised to make history as the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Want more teen empowerment? The Girl Declaration—created by 508 adolescent girls in 14 countries around the world as part of Nike’s Girl Effect campaign—is being delivered to the U.N. on Friday. “I was not put on this earth to be invisible. I was not born to be denied,” it starts. “I have a voice and I will use it. I have dreams unforgettable. I have a name and it is not anonymous or insignificant or unworthy or waiting anymore to be called.”

As the mother of a teenage girl in middle-class America, I’ve often wondered what could happen if all girls could have opportunities similar to my daughter’s to test—and flex—the power of their youth, idealism, imagination, and dreams. It turns out there are some eye-opening answers.

In countries around the world, recognizing the untapped economic potential of 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty is like finding buried treasure. Unlocking that potential by investing in education, ending child marriage, and preventing violence can break the cycle of poverty for generations to come.

Take a look at some examples: In India, teen pregnancy creates $10 billion in lost potential income, reports The Girl Effect movement. Uganda loses $10 billion in potential earnings because 85 percent of girls there don’t finish school. In Bangladesh, delaying child marriage for one million girls could add $69 billion to the country’s national income.

By far, child marriage is one of the greatest obstacles to girls trying to reach their full potential. There are nearly 70 million child brides worldwide, reports the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), and one-third of girls in developing countries will be married before the age of 18.

When girls marry early, they miss out on getting an education and learning the skills they’ll need to support themselves and their families, contribute to their economies, and reduce poverty. They also face greater health risks: Child brides have a pregnancy death rate that’s twice as high as women in their 20s. And they’re more isolated, with fewer friends, support networks, and economic resources—which results in greater vulnerability to violence and exploitation. For every additional year a girl is in school, she is more likely to delay marriage and childbirth, her children are more likely to survive, and her future earning potential increases by 10–25 percent.

The ICRW outlines five ways to stop child marriage: Empower girls with information and skills; provide economic support to their families; educate their parents and communities; enhance access to education; and encourage supportive laws and policies. Ending child marriage also needs to be a global development goal. Although girls were excluded from the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for 2015, it’s not too late to include them in the post-2015 agenda and make their Declaration a reality for every young girl: “Someday they will say this was the moment when the world woke up to my potential,” it states. “This is the moment I was allowed to be astonishing.”

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