Why Rural Girls Will Claim the Future

REUTERS/Parwiz

A girl’s role in the rural economy is both precarious and filled with potential. In today’s societies in transition, age-old traditions of oppression are in conflict with rapid social and economic changes. Urbanization is happening at such a fast pace that soon the rural-urban divide will all but disappear. These changes lead to new opportunities for girls as they grow into womanhood, but they also open up great uncertainties. 

The economic success of these societies will be determined largely by how well we manage these uncertainties. We can start by creating viable opportunities for girls to enter the workforce. In my native Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million women now work in the ready-made garment sector, most of them having migrated from rural areas to the cities in search of a better life. Many of these women work long hours in dangerous and unsafe conditions, as became painfully clear in the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex, which killed 1,134 workers. 
 
Yet it would be a mistake to condemn the rise of manufacturing and concurrent urbanization as a curse on Bangladesh’s women. In years past, a Bangladeshi girl would often be married off at the age of 14 or younger. She would then remain trapped in a life of deprivation, rarely even leaving her husband’s village. This still happens to an alarming degree, but girls from backgrounds of extreme poverty are increasingly proving themselves capable of disrupting intergenerational cycles of suffering and exploitation. Urban migration is taking place in part because of investments made in girls’ education in recent decades. Girls who could read basic instructions and measurements, even if only enough to work a sewing machine in a garment factory, were able to leave the village in search of a better life. They uprooted themselves in order to give their daughters a chance of an even better education. Many are now becoming entrepreneurs and taking on roles that were previously the domain of men. 

I love studying. My favorite subjects are history, geography, French, and science. I want to become a qualified midwife because I’ve seen a lot of difficulties in my community, especially where I live. We don’t have a health center and all that. So that’s what I want to become: a qualified midwife.

Fanta Mballo, 18, Kolda, Senegal

To ensure our societies continue to progress, we need to radically increase the choices available to girls. We must provide the skills and knowledge they need to cope and thrive amid rapid ongoing change. BRAC recently developed a skills training program that deploys a traditional apprenticeship model that has been used for thousands of years, but until now was open only to boys. Around 60 percent of the participants are girls between the ages of 14 and 18. A randomized controlled trial shows that this apprenticeship program, called Skills Training for Advancing Resources (STAR), gives a huge boost to labor market participation and increases participants’ earnings by 44 percent. It has opened up professions that would have otherwise been off-limits to girls such as mobile phone repair, appliance repair and maintenance, and light engineering. Research also shows the program spurs additional hiring by employers as opposed to merely training participants who displace other workers.
 
In many countries girls are on the front lines not only with regard to economic transformation but also in other areas of development such as healthcare. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, where BRAC runs an array of social and economic empowerment programs, girls played a central role in managing the Ebola crisis. After the epidemic hit, schools shut down as the countries came to a halt. When family members fell ill, girls often had to take on the responsibility of managing the household, caring for the sick, and looking after younger siblings.

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, where BRAC runs an array of social and economic empowerment programs, girls played a central role in managing the Ebola crisis.

We found that effective training and empowerment programs boosted girls’ resilience in the midst of disaster. BRAC runs a network of clubs for adolescent girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, called Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA). In a girls-only safe space, the program offers life skills and livelihood training led by peer mentors. Working in Sierra Leone, scholars from the London School of Economics, University College London, and the World Bank found that while Ebola caused post-crisis school enrollment to drop more than 20 percentage points, participation in this program offset that effect almost entirely. ELA effectively inoculated female survivors against many of the worst long-term impacts of the crisis. 
 
Our next step must be to encourage girls to be as technology savvy as boys, with opportunities to be at the cutting edge of knowledge through the study of engineering and information technology, including artificial intelligence. Such disciplines will be among the pillars of the 21st-century knowledge society. Here, too, girls must be on the front lines. 
 
The future now belongs to the daughters of the women I have described. Their mothers faced epidemics and tragedies with courage and grit so that the next generation might rise from poverty. We owe it them to ensure that all girls have opportunities to learn, thrive, and lead our societies forward.
© 2018 THE CHICAGO COUNCIL ON GLOBAL AFFAIRS