Born to Lead: Life Skills and Assets for Rural Girls

Rural girls are the key to unlocking progress in low-income countries where critical education, health, and economic indicators refuse to budge. While rural girls are no more important than urban girls or rural boys, they are often left behind because of the triple challenges of age, location, and gender. Investing in rural girls—and ensuring their progress—will lead the world forward, thanks to the profound impact girls and women have on their communities and the multiplier effects.
Girls in rural areas are especially deserving of investment because they often have inadequate opportunities to access good health care, education, and security. It is important to note that this deficit of opportunities does not mean that girls are vulnerable actors who require others to empower them. Girls in rural areas are strong and capable, and they have the power within them to direct the courses of their lives and influence the lives of others. Rural girls care for their siblings, tend to animals and crops, cook for their families, and gather water and firewood from long distances. Girls also play sports, win at chess, advocate for their rights and the rights of others, write poetry, tell their stories, and invent new products.

They are already leading, and the global community can support rural girls by removing the barriers that can slow them down and by building up their assets, especially knowledge and skills that can never be taken away. Progress is a shared responsibility. Large-scale change happens when society as a whole participates. As rural girls build their capital—human, social, economic, and cognitive—their natural resilience, brilliance, and diverse capabilities are reinforced. Good health is an asset. Proper nutrition is an asset. Literacy is an asset. A savings account is an asset. Knowledge of a safe space to report abuse is also an asset. As rural girls gain practical life skills, they are better equipped to chart their own paths and create opportunities for those around them. Two key ways to help rural girls gain these assets is to ensure they receive a quality education and to focus on them as a funding priority.

Ensuring girls start and finish school is the most fundamental commitment that must be made at global, national, regional, and local levels. Doing so changes the course of history. It is estimated that over half of the reduction in deaths of children under the age of five in recent decades can be attributed to the education of girls and women.1 That translates to 4 million children who survived because their mothers were educated and sought care for them when needed—and had sufficient status in the household to do so.2

So why is this goal so difficult to achieve? What is needed for girls to complete school? The barriers are not only related to financial cost, but also to political will, priorities, and cultural norms. In any case, we cannot afford to not educate girls. Human capital is the driving force behind economic competitiveness. As girls and women are left behind, nations that underinvest in girls will sacrifice growth and progress.
  • New research from the World Bank estimates that failing to support girls through the completion of their secondary education costs the world US$30 trillion annually in lost earnings and productivity.3
  • A country’s GDP increases by an average of 3 percent if 10 percent more adolescent girls attend school.4
The benefits of educating girls are great—and the gap between rich and poor, rural and urban so significant—that there is a strong argument to be made for targeting rural girls with interventions that provide support over and above other target groups.

There are critical moments at every point in a girl's life where small and large actions can make a huge difference in her trajectory.

The evidence that agricultural development is critical to overall development and that the empowerment and inclusion of women are key strategies for increasing prosperity is compelling. Yet a focus on the factors that empower women to lead as educated and productive women has not reached the same level of priority. Despite increasing concerns about stunting and malnutrition globally and the nutrition community’s call to rally around the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, rural girls are only beginning to be acknowledged as key actors in breaking the intergenerational transfer of undernutrition. If girls are well nourished today, pregnant women tomorrow are more likely to have children that are off to a good start in the 1,000-day window.
The Canadian government’s commitment to gender equality and the announcement in June 2018 of US$2.9 billion5 to fund education for the world’s poorest girls and women has been celebrated and matched by other governments. Funding for rural girls should also be prioritized by the global community and tracked clearly in global databases.
A lifecycle approach is imperative to identify and address the myriad challenges facing rural girls and young women at various life stages. This approach will help them seize opportunities to lead their families, villages, businesses, and governments. It will also demonstrate the power of their collective potential to influence the sustainable development story being written globally. High-quality education for girls is the top priority, as the direct value and ancillary benefits of staying in school and gaining skills cannot be underestimated. However, there are other critical actions that must be taken right now for rural girls across the age continuum as well as for their mothers, aunts, and sisters. Otherwise, the girls of today will face the same challenges as the current generation of adult women.

Therefore, these recommendations are arranged by age. There are critical moments at every point in a girl’s life where small and large actions can make a huge difference. Addressing these issues is the joint responsibility of the global community, governments, civil society (including faith leaders), and the private sector. Actions are required independently and collaboratively to achieve the breadth and scale of change necessary to position rural girls to grow, lead, and contribute to a healthy, peaceful, and prosperous world.
1 Aristide Romaric Bado and A. Sathiya Susuman, “Women’s Education and Health Inequalities in Under-Five Mortality in Selected Sub-Saharan African Countries, 1990-2015,” PLoS ONE 111, no. 7 (July 21, 2016),; Ann M. Veneman, “Education Is Key to Reducing Child Mortality: The Link Between Maternal Health and Education,” UN Chronicle XLIV, no. 4 (December 2007),
2 Emmanuela Gakidou, Krycia Cowling, Rafael Lozano, Christopher J.L. Murray, “Increased Educational Attainment and Its Effect on Child Mortality in 174 countries Between 1979 and 2009: A Systematic Analysis,” The Lancet 376 (September 18, 2010): 970,
3 Quentin Wodon, Claudio Montenegro, Hao Nguyen, and Adenike Onagoruwa, Missed Opportunities: The High Cost of Not Educating Girls (Washington DC: World Bank, July 2018), 5,
4 SAID, Girls’ Equality and Education [Fact Sheet] (Washington DC: USAID, January 2018), accessed November 20, 2018,
5 “G7 Summit: $3bn Pledge for Girls’ Education,” BBC News, US & Canada, June 9, 2018, accessed November 20, 2018,