Girls Grow Reflections: 2011

In 2009 the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched the seminal Girls in Rural Economies project to examine the status of girls in rural settings around the globe. The project culminated in the 2011 report Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, arguing that investing in the health and safety of rural girls as well as their personal and professional development has the potential to transform rural economies, leading to economic growth and social stability in low-income countries­.
The Girls Grow report was chaired by Catherine Bertini, guided by 11 distinguished committee members, and supported by development practitioners in fields from health and human rights to agriculture and anthropology. It offered seven broad recommendations and specific actions that the global community could undertake to empower rural girls to help themselves, their families, their communities, and their nations. Since the report’s publication, the global policy landscape has evolved to include more policies and institutions that address the needs of rural areas and the needs of girls. However, meaningful progress has not necessarily been made where these two areas overlap: rural girls. To demonstrate the vital need to recognize rural girls’ potential to become agents of change, the Chicago Council has undertaken this update to Girls Grow to show how global policy, advocacy, and economic priorities have developed from 2011 to today and to make further recommendations for moving forward.

Who can move the agenda forward

Three partners have a critical role to play in leading on this issue going forward: the G7, national governments, and the private sector. The G7, with its enormous influence on the global agenda, is foremost in setting the vision and goals for the world to follow. The G7’s priority themes for 2018, ratified at the summit in Charlevoix, Canada, are climate change, the future of work, economic growth, and security threats. The G7’s public engagement papers for the priorities refer explicitly to the empowerment, improvement, and inclusion of girls. The priorities underline, for example, that women who are given equal opportunities to succeed can become powerful agents of change and that women’s active involvement in the peace process historically yields longer-lasting treaties. This year’s report, Girls Leading: From Rural Economies to Global Solutions, demonstrates how and where each of the G7’s four priorities has entry points for rural girls and women and what the payoffs will be in the future.
Second, national governments are on the front line. They control the resources, laws, and frameworks that can ensure rural girls get what they are not getting now. Girls are an important national resource for a country. The country’s government is in the strongest position to provide meaningful growth and positive guardianship through the provision of education, social protection, health care, equal rights, and access to agricultural assets.  

Girls are an important national resource for a country. Each country's government is in the strongest position to provide meaningful growth and positive guardianship through the provision of education, social protection, healthcare, equal rights, and access to agricultural assets.

National governments can no longer sustain the structural oppression of women and girls if they hope to develop in tandem with their global allies and harness the social, economic, and political power of an equally empowered citizenry. For meaningful growth to occur, national governments must change the laws and frameworks that pin rural girls down. By providing education, social protection, health care, equal rights, and access to economic opportunities in both rural and urban communities to rural girls, national governments can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and truly turn girls into powerful agents of change.
Third, the private sector has a crucial stake in the future of work for rural girls. The private sector has unique resources to advance two bottom lines: financial profit and positive social impact on girls, achieved through programs in education, nutrition, health, and skills training. The private sector, moreover, is a natural partner for implementing the SDGs because of its access to timely, disaggregated data flowing from its corporate commitments. This data would serve to monitor progress and identify areas that need more investment. Private-sector companies, especially those working in the food and agriculture industries, have a positive role to play, along with an opportunity to take a proactive stance against issues around child labor.

Where further progress can be made

To shed light on how institutions can evolve and fill the policy void, this section reviews progress made since 2011 with respect to rural girls. The areas reviewed in this section are tied to the seven recommendations made in Girls Grow:
The absence of data about rural girls continues to be a roadblock to policy action. Fewer births of girls are recorded compared to boys, particularly in rural areas. Additionally, there is insufficient disaggregation of data at the intersection of age, gender, and location. Inadequate evidence about rural girls’ experiences makes it difficult to conduct research, design policies, and implement programs.1 There is also a lack of adequate methods to collect the data.
The SDGs contain indicators that require measurement of girls, thereby pressuring development agencies and national governments to be more accountable and report progress as 2030 approaches.2 Plan International’s 2016 report, Counting the Invisible, underscores the need for data on girls’ experiences.3 Moreover, it examines the indicators proposed for the SDGs and discusses challenges to using these indicators. For instance, the report notes that only three of the 14 indicators used to measure SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) are regularly collected in most countries and have agreed statistical methodologies.4
Data2X, an initiative launched in 2012 by the UN Foundation and supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explains the need for gender data (i.e., data disaggregated by sex):
REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
“We have no data or bad data on issues that disproportionately affect women and girls but that society does not highly value such as informal and unpaid work and intimate partner violence. Data gaps reflect biases in traditional social norms that see women as ‘reproducer’ and the household as a single unit. Gender biases both impede and distort data collection.”5
There has been increasing awareness of the need for good gender data since 2011, but the data itself has yet to be collected and the methodologies yet to be determined and implemented. Unique challenges exist for determining and developing appropriate methodologies for collecting data about rural girls. These challenges, however, are not insurmountable. India, for example, has developed new technology to mitigate these difficulties. India is building a national database that assigns a unique 12-digit identification number to everyone over 15 years old, with the aim of issuing each one an identity card to be linked to fingerprints and iris scans. This database promises far greater transparency and accountability, which in turn would have tremendous potential for the provision of social services to rural girls and for the prevention and investigation of sex crimes.6 This example indicates that it is possible to improve data about rural girls and that there is much more that institutions can do to support the implementation of similar efforts globally.
Since 2000 there has been significant progress in girls’ enrollment in secondary school and a narrowing of the educational gender gap. However, much of this progress in girls’ primary school enrollment began in 2008 and tapered off by 2012.7 In 2011, the year Girls Grow was published, UNESCO began an annual review that provides greater insight into gender differences in educational attainment. At the secondary school level, gender disparities vary significantly by region and income level. In general, the rural poor are far less likely to have access to educational opportunities than the wealthy. But rural girls are uniquely disadvantaged; in poor, rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, girls are still far less likely than boys to enroll in and graduate from school.8
There are some positive developments at the country level. Among countries with low school attendance rates, Bangladesh saw a 15 percent rise in rural girls’ schooling from 2010 to 2012, and El Salvador saw an increase of 18 percent between 2013 and 2015. But the number of girls out of school remains unacceptably high. In 2011 some 32 million girls of primary school age were not in school; by 2016 the number had increased to 34 million.9 Nonetheless, the progress that has been made indicates that all actors can do more to improve girls’ education. The recommendations in this year’s Girls Leading report focus especially on ways that rural girls’ access to education can improve through the efforts of the G7, national governments, and the private sector.

There has been increasing awareness of the need for good gender data since 2011, but the data itself has yet to be collected and the methodologies yet to be determined and implemented.

Entrepreneurship has emerged as a crucial element of the future of work in the global arena. Most notably, the G20’s 2011 Employment Task Force has emphasized the need to increase support for the school-to-work transition, such as apprenticeships, entrepreneurship training, and vocational education.
While progress for rural girls is difficult to measure due to the data problems described above, several development entities are beginning to assess the effects of increasing a focus on rural girls’ entrepreneurship in education. In 2014, the Global 4-H network met in Seoul, Korea, to commit to growing the network of 4-H participants worldwide from the current 7 million, half of them girls and young women, to 25 million by 2025.10 Additionally, programs focused on women’s entrepreneurship are growing globally, including development initiatives like the Rural Enterprises Programme in Ghana. This eight-year, US$185 million project by the International Fund for Agricultural Development improves access to technology, skills, and financial services to support micro- and small enterprises. The International Fund for Agricultural Development reported that significant improvements in participants’ enterprises have been observed.11 Overall, evidence suggests that targeting women entrepreneurs results in higher success rates, and global efforts to reach rural girls should be bolstered in order to overcome the host of structural barriers to their success. This report presents further actions that can be taken to nurture entrepreneurship and innovation among rural girls, and the benefits of doing so.
The issues at stake in empowering rural girls’ voices and agency range from the personal to the political. Empowerment can mean having an active voice in deciding whom to marry or which career to pursue, in addition to having a government that acknowledges the challenges of rural girls and faithfully represents their interests. Youth attitudes about government vary around the world, but the International Youth Foundation’s 2017 Youth Wellbeing Survey, which covered 30 countries, found that 67 percent of surveyed young people did not believe their countries cared about their wants and needs.12 Interestingly, youth from lower-income countries reflected a greater sense that their countries cared than higher-income countries.
Girls have been increasingly acknowledged as valuable government advisors and advocates. For instance, in 2011, the same year as Girls Grow’s publication, the United Nations established the International Day of the Girl Child for the first time. Since this declaration, there have been more and more movements to bring girls’ voices to the fore through events, films, and book projects as well as official forums like the “Girls 20” group, which aims to influence the G20. These will be featured throughout Girls Leading. Recognizing that bringing increased attention to girls is critical to governance capacities, Girls Leading highlights the particular need to welcome rural girls’ voices to the table in local, national, and global settings. Moreover, it will provide suggestions for how to do so.
Programs like 4-H equip girls and young women with entrepreneurship training, agricultural knowledge, and natural resource management skills. However, a key part of preparing adolescent girls to be major stakeholders in agriculture and natural resource management is securing land access for women and ensuring that financial services are accessible to girls so they are empowered to be decision makers. With women holding only 12.8 percent of agricultural land worldwide, major efforts are needed to increase the number of women farm holders and expand women’s role in agriculture and natural resource management.13 Some notable work has been done to address the legal, cultural, and financial barriers to women playing a leadership role in agricultural and natural resource sectors. Reviewing this progress points to ways additional strides can be made to help girls take on natural resource management roles.
India provides a good example of the positive impact of modifying legal structures as well as the limits of these modifications. In India the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 significantly restricted land inheritance rights for female relatives, which some argue is a fundamental structural factor in the continuing disempowerment of women. After several states implemented reforms, the national government passed a law in 2005 granting equal access to inheritance rights for women. However, cultural norms about the value of girls and women, in addition to practices like the dowry, have persisted. In many cases, inheritance did not increase for daughters despite the new law. But additional effects for women and girls are beginning to emerge. An intergenerational analysis published in the American Economic Review in 2017 demonstrates that while there was a documented and significant increase in the number of years of schooling for the first generation of girls affected by the land tenure reform, in the next generation there was no statistically significant impact on girls’ education, and boys’ education levels decreased slightly.14 Thus, legal reform in India demonstrates that legal adjustments are important but ultimately insufficient on their own. Further work to address cultural and social limitations must be done.
Given the persistence of social and cultural challenges, programs have been created to address the attitudes of families toward women’s inheritance and to prepare girls to inherit and manage land in accordance with their rights. The “Girls Project” by Landesa is one such program. Landesa works to champion and advise on policies and strategies for strengthening women’s land rights. It also includes a program focused on sensitizing boys to the new rights and responsibilities of girls so that as girls come of age, their participation in land management is seen positively.
In addition to legal and cultural barriers, women and girls face significant financial barriers to attaining managerial roles. Overall, access to bank accounts among young adults is shrinking. The number of adults with access to a bank account rose from 51 to 69 percent from 2011 to 2017, but the gender gap remains unchanged at a stubborn 7 percent.15 Since the number one reason for not opening a bank account is reportedly “not enough money to open an account,” helping adolescent girls and young women access economic opportunity is the primary way to help them gain financial services access. But there are also programs and policies that target adolescents and young women directly, and in those places progress is visible. In Uganda, for example, the percentage of women with accounts rose from 15 to 23 between 2011 and 2014.16 Overall, recent trends at the global and national levels indicate that steps are being taken to support girls legally, socially, and financially in land management roles, but more can certainly be done.

Given the persistence of social and cultural challenges, programs have been created to address the attitudes of families toward women's inheritance and to prepare girls to inherit and manage land in accordance with their rights.

The top two causes of death among adolescent girls globally are suicide and maternal mortality, a strikingly brutal statistic for people barely entering their second decade of life. There has been progress, and maternal mortality rates are down around the world by considerable amounts, falling by 44 percent since 1990.17 However, the highest risk factors for death are rurality, poverty, and being under the age of 18 years. This means that rural girls are among the most at risk in the world.18
While there have been improvements in rural girls’ access to health services since 2011, there is still much work to be done. For instance, although the overall HIV infection rate declined by 16 percent from 2010 to 2016, there has been an alarming increase in HIV and AIDS infection rates among adolescent girls and young women in high-prevalence regions. New infections among adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 24 years were 44 percent higher than they were among men in the same age group. In Sub-Saharan Africa the number of adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 24 years newly infected with HIV was double the number of young men.19 Greater emphasis must be placed on HIV services for rural girls and young women to address and prevent challenges like these. Moreover, rural girls are less likely to have access to sexual health education and health centers, and only 56 percent of births are attended by a health professional in rural regions, compared to 87 percent in urban settings. The lack of adequate access to educational and medical resources indicates that this is a key area where more can be done.
Another health-related area to address is mental health. As mentioned above, suicide is one of the leading causes of adolescent girls’ deaths. Poverty is strongly correlated with incidence of suicide; 78 percent of suicides take place in low- and middle-income countries. Compounded by persistent gender discrimination and limited access to opportunity, poor girls in communities with few opportunities for mental health treatment are uniquely afflicted by suicide. For example, rural women in China have committed suicide at a rate far higher than men and than the global average for decades, but concerted efforts have helped to lower it.20 Still, in Southeast Asia as a whole, suicide rates among rural girls and women remain very high. The rate of death by suicide is 27.92 per every 100,000 females between 15 and 19 years, more than five times the rate in Europe and the Americas.21 And while rates are lower in the United States, suicides have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, hitting a 40-year high in 2015 among girls aged 15 to 19 years. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also mapped where suicides have been increasing in the general population. The most substantial rates of increase are in rural states, showing yet again that rural girls are an invisible but critically affected demographic.22 Globally, more can and should be done to address the mental health needs of rural girls.

The highest risk factors for death are rurality, poverty, and being under the age of 18 years. This means that rural girls are among the most at risk in the world.

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
It is impossible to report on progress regarding global rates of violence against girls due to a lack of data, and rates of violence against women do not appear to show any measurable global change in the time since Girls Grow. This is another reason to develop methodologies to better capture the experiences of rural girls. One thing we do know is that violence against rural girls is most likely to occur at the hands of an intimate partner. The statistics are stark: 1 in 10 girls worldwide has been forced into a sexual act to which she did not consent, and the number of women married before 18 years stands today at 750 million. India, which has the highest rate of early marriage in the world at 27 percent, also has seen the most dramatic reduction in child marriage, falling from 50 percent a decade ago. However, some states, like Bihar, have child marriage rates as high as 69 percent. Early marriage is also highly correlated with domestic abuse within a marriage. In South Asia 29 percent of women who were married before the age of 15 reported domestic violence within the past year, a rate 9 percent higher than their counterparts who married as adults.23 Rural girls and women are also vulnerable to long-held beliefs—often held by abuser and abused alike—that sexual violence is justified. Globally, 44 percent of girls believe it is sometimes justified for women to be abused by their partners.24
While intimate partners and family members are the main threat to girls’ health and safety, schools can also foster sexually threatening environments. An estimated 246 million boys and girls experience school-related violence, and one in four girls reports she never uses latrines due to fears about her safety. Attitudes must change for norms and policy to follow suit. In some places, current events indicate a promising shift away from attitudes and beliefs that victimize rural girls. For example, in India mass protests took place in early 2018 against the rape and killing of a five-year-old girl in Kashmir. The levels of public outrage had not been seen since the prolonged sexual torture and death of a 21-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. The ensuing public debate spurred the government into passing tougher laws on violence against women.25 These events and general knowledge about the violence girls face demonstrate the dire need to improve data about rural girls’ experiences as well as the need to develop policies to prevent such violence from happening. The connection between physical violence and state security must be kept in mind as policymakers work to eliminate violence against girls. Girls Leading explores the critical need to address these issues and proposes suggestions for tackling them.
Addressing violence against women
Alyse Nelson talks about the problem of viewing gender-based violence as only a women’s issue at the Council’s Women and Global Development Forum on April 6, 2018, in Chicago.

The way forward 

REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Girls Leading: From Rural Economies to Global Solutions

While there has been some action taken to address rural girls’ needs and develop their potential since 2011, it is abundantly apparent that much more can and should be done. As explained above, there are clear actions that can be taken to support rural girls’ education, entrepreneurship, political participation, managerial roles, health, and security.
This progress report was written by Laura O’Carroll and Alesha Black.
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2 United Nations, “About the Sustainable Development Goals,” United Nations, accessed November 16, 2018,
3 Plan International, Counting the Invisible: Using Data to Transform the Lives of Girls and Women by 2030 (2016), accessed November 16, 2018,
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5 “Frequently Asked Questions,” data2x, last modified 2017,
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14 Nayana Bose and Shreyasee Das. "Women's Inheritance Rights, Household Allocation, and Gender Bias." American Economic Review 107, no. 5 (2017): 150-53.
15 Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Leora Klapper, Dorothe Singer, Saniya Ansar, and Jake Hess. “Account Ownership,” in The Global Findex Database 2017: Measuring Financial Inclusion and the Fintech Revolution, World Bank Group (2018) pp. 18-33, accessed November 16, 2018,
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18 World Health Organization, Suicide,” August 24, 2018, Fact Sheets, accessed November 16, 2018,
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25 Maria Thomas, “India’s supreme court upholds death penalty for 2012 Delhi gang-rape convicts,” Quartz: India, July 9, 2018, accessed November 16, 2018,