Sub-Saharan Africa is still, in the disdain words of former British prime minister Tony Blair, a scar on the conscious of the world.
Despite being independent for close to 50 years on average, the 2012 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Africa Human Development Report painted quite a disturbing picture of the region.
Since the 1960s, different development ideas have been explored and implemented by sub-Saharan African governments to, at least, rid the region of persistent poverty.
But in recent years, experts and activists have come to quite a provoking conclusion: if you want to change the world, invest in girls.
There is a big reason for that.
Across much of Malawi, by the time she is 12, a girl is tending the house—cooking and cleaning. She is less likely to be vaccinated, to see a doctor or to attend school to secondary level.
Fewer than one in five girls make it to secondary school, according to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). Nearly half are married by the time they are 18. One in seven girls across the country marries before she is 15.
Girls under 15 are up to five times as much likely to die while giving birth than are women in their 20s. Their babies too are more likely to die as well.
Consider the virtuous circle. An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school adds 15 to 25 percent wages.
Research indicates that girls who stay in school for seven or more years typically marry four years later and have two fewer children than those who dropped out. Fewer dependents per worker allows for greater economic growth.
In 2010, the World Food Programme (WFP) found that when girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it in their families. They buy books, medicine and bed nets.
“Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world,” Larry Summers wrote when he was chief economist at the World Bank.
The story of Caroline Alfonso, 13, a rural girl from Sabeta Village in Senior Chief Ngabu in Chikwawa District, gives ground for analysis.
“I want to become a nurse. I love how they dress. I love tending to the sick,” she says.
Alfonso, however, comes from a village that asks questions that reveal the odds against girls in Malawi: Why educate a daughter who will end up working for her in-laws rather than a son who will support you?
And it does not end with such a question, says group village head (GVH) Sabeta.
“Here, married men take advantage of young girls who live with helpless widows. They help the widow on condition of sleeping with these girls. Sadly, most of these girls drop from school at an early age and become pregnant,” he says.
Yet that is not all.
“We have some fathers, who as a way of meeting their needs, give their young girls to rich men in exchange for gifts. They either marry them off or just let the rich men do whatever they want to these girls,” adds GVH Sabeta.
If Caroline is to grow up and realise her dream, this is a society she needs to fight. But she is only a girl, a complete minor. Often, many like her end up dropping from school and becoming a number of early marriages in Malawi.
But somehow Caroline and 120 other girls from her area can sing a song of relief.
Stephanos Foundation, a charitable non-governmental organisation (NGO), is implementing a Goat For Girls project in Chikwawa District, targeting traditional authorities Maseya and Ngabu.
The project aims to help girls like Caroline live their aspirations. It invests in removing hurdles society imposes on such young girls.
“Our approach is dialogue with the community. We are talking with the communities, raising awareness on the need to protect the girl child and to help remove the hurdles that militate against their progress,” says Chimwemwe Hara, Stephanos Foundation project manager.
“We are giving a goat to each family which generates household income to meet some of the needs of these girls. We have also trained parents and guardians of these girls in village savings and loans [VSL] so that they have ready income to meet the girls’ education needs.
“We have also connected these girls to role models because we realised that there are girls who excelled from this area. So, we invite such girls to have inspirational sessions with the girls we support.”
Caroline, who is a beneficiary of the Goat For Girls project, says her life has now changed for the better since she was included on the project.
“The challenge is that when our parents fail to meet our education needs, we tend to look for boyfriends. This is not happening now as our parents are able to provide most of the things we lack,” she says. She is now in Form Two at Makande Community Day Secondary School in the district.
“We hope these young girls will get educated, support their families and develop the nation. We are investing in interventions that will remove the hurdles,” adds Hara.
Such interventions could as well become sub-Saharan region’s revolution against poverty. Perhaps, in 20 years from now, the region would be different, and, most importantly, no longer a scar on the conscious of the world. n