Girls’ Health and Education: Igniting Change Worldwide

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By: Alison Chatfield, Project Manager, Maternal Health Task Force, Women and Health Initiative

Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for adolescents in much of the developing world, leading us to ask the question: What role can the media, researchers, and policymakers play to ending the abuse and neglect of young women?The director of the upcoming HBO special “Girl Rising” will join our colleagues here at the Harvard School of Public Health at 12:30 EST today to address this critical question. Watch the panel, follow our live tweeting at @MHTF and participate by sending your questions to @ForumHSPH.

Girls’ Health and Education: Igniting Change Worldwide” will focus on the discrepancy between the knowledge that suggests educating girls is important and beneficial, and the entrenched biases that perpetuate gender inequity across the globe. It will examine the sources of these discrepancies and will review efforts to raise up the world’s girls through health and education. The Forum presents this event in partnership with Vulcan Productions, a founding partner of the 10×10 global action campaign that produced the film Girl Rising. Richard Robbins, the Director of Girl Rising, will speak on the panel, as well as our colleagues from the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Jacqueline Bhabha and Alicia Yamin, HSPH Professor on population, economics and international health David Canning, and Donna Barry, the Advocacy and Policy Director at Partners in Health.

At the MHTF, we know how important adolescent girls are. Adolescence marks a critical juncture in life, and for girls, it often means curtailing childhood and transitioning to marriage and childbearing before reaching physical and emotional maturity. About 16 million women 15-19 years old give birth each year , and 95% of these births occur in low- and middle-income countries. These adolescents have much higher risk of maternal mortality : girls between 10 and 14 are five times more likely than women ages 20 to 24 to die from childbirth and pregnancy. Unfortunately, this means that complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of adolescent death in the parts of the world where child marriage is most common.

In response, there has been much global consensus on the importance of delaying marriage and early childbearing by keeping girls in school. Literature from UNFPA, the ICRW and the Population Council suggests improving girls’ access to the classroom is strongly associated with delaying marriage. The classroom can also serve as an effective intervention point to equip both girls and boys with accurate sexual and reproductive health curriculum before marriage. Calls for more comprehensive education for children in China and Kenya demonstrate the demand for higher quality sex education to increase youth’s ability to negotiate safe sex. That being said, there are many examples of countries pushing back against sex education in schools, citing inadequate consultation with parents and lack of synergy with cultural and religious values.

Even if schools were to offer meaningful educational opportunities, numerous factors prevent girls from attending school regularly that do not affect their male counterparts. Menstruation can prohibit girls from attending school if adequate hygiene and sanitation is unavailable. Hygiene and sanitation can also compel girls who are responsible for their families’ access to clean water to stay home from school. These access barriers are not simply logistical problems; they are reflective of deeply-engrained norms around gender. Girls attending school regularly is not always a priority, especially in contexts where opportunities for further education and/or employment for girls are unavailable. Therefore, hygiene and sanitation interventions that seek to improve classroom access for girls require attention to the systemic issues that perpetuate inequity.

Are you interested in discussing these issues more? Then tune into the Leadership Studio event today, Friday, June 14, 2013, from 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm. You can join the conversation by emailing questions for the expert participants any time before or during the live webcast to You can also follow us @MHTF to follow along with our live-tweets of the event, and tweet your questions for panelists @ForumHSPH. Use #girlshealtheducation to add to the global discussion of the importance of girls’ health and education.