International Day of the Girl 2020: Unlocking Potential Amidst Crisis

By Jake Konig, Hilton Fellow, BRAC UPGI

“I was only 14 years old when I got married. I do my best to give my daughter the childhood I never had, I want her to be confident — dream bigger than I ever could.” -Manju, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation program participant in Bangladesh

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Graduation participant Manju and her daughter Ishita | Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (BRAC 2019)

On this International Day of the Girl, girls around the world are in peril. Economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing millions into poverty, including 47 million women and girls. Now, more than ever, the global community must recommit and hold steadfast to fight for the rights of every girl.

Being trapped in extreme poverty harms girls when households try to cope in harmful, often desperate ways, like child marriage. Giving up a daughter to marriage reduces household expenses. There is one less person to feed, and the income or standing of a household may increase if a “bride-price” is paid. Although this may seem like a practical solution to desperate households, this practice carries serious dangers.

Girls pushed into childhood marriage are more likely to cut their education short which reduces their ability to earn a living. They are also more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, die of childbirth complications, and fall victim to sexual and physical violence. As the economic impact of COVID-19 pushes families into dire financial situations, 500,000 more girls are at risk of child marriage this year.

Along with this sharp increase in child marriage, COVID-19-induced poverty has pushed millions of children back into child labor. As the crisis continues, poverty threatens to force millions more to join them. According to the UN, a one percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 percent increase in child labor.

Not only does the economic impact of COVID-19 increase rates of child marriage and labor, but the infectious nature of the virus itself creates a major barrier in the main development pathway of all children: their education.

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(UNESCO October 2020)

According to UN statistics, as of October 2020 there are currently over 700 million students living in countries with schools fully closed, while over 100 million students are living in countries with schools partially closed. Every child is entitled to a childhood, which means spending their days in an educational setting and not tending to spouses or engaging in hard labor — but with COVID-19 causing the biggest disruption to education in modern history, many children may never return to the classroom.

The sheer magnitude of the damage caused by COVID-19 can make one feel hopeless, but now is not the time to lose hope. BRAC’s Graduation approach offers program participants hope through a proven, evidence based intervention that empowers girls and women around the world to overcome the many obstacles of extreme poverty. Rigorous data collected in studying the effectiveness of the Graduation approach indicates that it dramatically boosts school attendance for children in participating households, improves overall health, and increases food consumption — all critical components that move girls toward a healthier and better life.

A fundamental aim of the approach is to prevent harmful coping mechanisms that households in extreme poverty are commonly forced to adopt. To build the human capital of societies, the global community must invest in evidence-based social protection interventions like the Graduation approach that are proven to address the underlying, multidimensional causes of extreme poverty.

“Education was never an option for us, but my children will be educated.”

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Basha at school | Bangladesh (BRAC 2017)

Basha, a 14-year-old girl, remembers life before her household enrolled in the Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) program in Bangladesh: “My mother took up part-time maid jobs, and when there was nothing else she made mats with her sister-in-law. She was always busy during the day, but I heard her cry many nights — especially those ones where we had not been able to eat much, or when rain came through the roof.” This situation dramatically changed for the better when the Graduation approach empowered Basha’s mother, Arti, with the right tools, knowledge, and resources needed to put her family on a pathway out of extreme poverty.

Ensuring children are enrolled in and attending school is prioritized within the program’s core Graduation criteria, and as a part of her journey, Arti attended group learning sessions that reinforced the importance of education for young girls. An increased income as a result of the program ensured that Basha can stay dry under her roof while doing her homework during a rainstorm and count on stable, nutritious meals to fuel her growing mind.

The Graduation approach aims not only to increase household income and share critical knowledge with participants, but also to increase overall confidence and self-esteem in participants who have been traditionally ostracized within their society.

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Nurunnahar educating her community on the dangers of child marriage | Bangladesh (BRAC 2015)

Nurunnahar enrolled in a Graduation program in 2009, and along with receiving assets to start her sewing livelihood, she received social and health lessons. With this newfound income and knowledge, Nurunnahar gained confidence. This confidence encouraged her to raise her voice against the marriage of her underage niece, and eventually, 20 other underage girls in her community. The approach empowered Nurunnahar to use her voice to promote education for girls, prevent gender-based violence, and end child marriage.

This International Day of the Girl is upon us amidst a global pandemic and mass economic uncertainty. How the global community reacts to these unprecedented circumstances will shape girls’ lives now and in the future. We have solutions — and now we must act with girl and women centered approaches like Graduation that unlock the limitless potential within each girl.

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Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by providing a pathway out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation programs.

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