Despite being independent for close to half a century now, the recent UNDPâ€™s Africa Human Development Report 2012 paints quite a disturbing picture of the sub-Saharan Africa region.
The report reveals that one quarter of the people in the region are still undernourished; one third of the children are stunted and that the majority of the people are still subsistence farmers who eke out meagre livelihoods on tiny plots of depleted soil.
It adds that the region is still food insecure; something that continues to widen the gap between its human development and that of more successful regions.
But what is wrong with sub-Saharan Africa, home to almost 900 million Africans?
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. Although there has been some progress, of course; but the core of the regionâ€™s miser appears untouched.
How do you discern progress when thousands, as the report indicates, are yet to meet their basic needsâ€”the primary level of development?
This, however, has not sent development experts concerned about increased poverty and disease to rest. In recent years, these experts and activists have come to quite a provoking conclusion: If you want to change the world, invest in girls.
“Investment in girlsâ€™ 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.
There is a big reason for that.
Across much of Malawi, by the time a girl is 12, she is looking after the household, cooking and cleaning. She eats what is left after the men and boys have eaten; she is less likely to be vaccinated, to see a doctor and to attend school up to secondary school.
Less than one in five girls make it to secondary school, according to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey. Nearly half are married by the time they are 18; while one in seven girls across the country marries before she is 15.
The leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 is not accident or violence or disease; it is complications from pregnancy. Girls under 15 are up to five times as likely to die while having children than women in their 20s, and their babies are more likely to die as well.
As such, there are countless reasons rescuing girls, who hold up half the sky because they are in majority, is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.
Girls in schools
Consider the virtuous cycle: An extra year of primary school boosts girlsâ€™ eventual wages by 10 percent to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school adds 15 percent to 25 percent.
Girls who stay in school for seven or more years typically marry four years later and have two fewer children than girls who drop out. Fewer dependents per worker allows for greater economic growth.
The World Food Programme (WFP) in 2010 found that when girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it in their families. They buy books, medicine and bed nets.
But how should government and parents invest in girls?
The story of Joyce Mbilika, nine, a girl from Pende Village, GVH Fombe, T/A Mlilima, Chikhwawa, gives a ground for analysis.
“I want to become a nurse; I love how they dress, I love caring for the sick,” she says while writing her name on the ground, as others cheer on.
Joyce comes from a village that asks questions that reveal the odds against girls: 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 question, says Group Village Head Fombe.
“Here, married men take advantage of young girl who live with helpless widows. They help the widow on condition of sleeping with these girls. Sadly, most of these girls drop out of school at an early age and become pregnant,” he says.
Yet that is not all.
“We have some fathers, as a way of meeting their needs; give their young girls to rich men in exchange for gifts. They either marry them off, or sometimes just let the rich men do whatever they want to these girls,” he continues.
Fight for dreams
If Joyce is to grow up and realise her dream, this is a society she needs to fight. But she is only a small girl. Can she?
Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (Cawvoc) is implementing a project in the area to help girls like Joyce live to their aspirations. They invest in removing hurdles society imposes on these 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, to help remove the hurdles that militate against their progress,” says Joyce Phekani, the Cawvocâ€™s executive director.
To achieve that, Cawvoc set up committees in the village to police the welfare of girls. They comprise both men and women.
John Chilima is a member of one of the committees.
“We visit different households where we share with them the importance of educating girls. Whenever something bad happens or is about to happen to a girl, the locals report to us. We talk with perpetrators, when that fails, we report to the village. If that fails to achieve the intended purpose, we take the matter to police,” says Chilima.
Such committees are spread across the village and their work is similar.
“We hope these young girls get educated, support their families and develop the nation. We are investing in interventions that will remove the hurdles,” says Phekani.
Such interventions could as well become sub-Saharan region revolution against poverty. Perhaps years from now, the region would be different.