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Why Sustainability Depends on Girls’ Rights

May 20, 2021

The health of our planet impacts all of us, regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. The alarming and widespread nature of environmental catastrophes—such as deforestation, climate change, and lack of drinking water—make it easy to focus on treating the symptoms without addressing the root causes. 

We must dig deeper into these issues to expose the layers of gender inequality, patriarchy, and poverty buried beneath that contribute to creating these environmental catastrophes. 

It’s undeniable that those who bear the brunt of the devastation are often the poorest and most marginalized among us. As we work towards creating enduring models of sustainability, we can be sure that advocating for girls’ rights will steer us on the right path. When we ensure that all women and girls can attend school and use reproductive health services, we open doors of opportunity and challenge pre-existing notions of gender roles, both inside and outside the home. 

Girls who have agency over their reproductive health pursue the lives they want and inevitably help stabilize the global population. Girls who receive an education become empowered to participate in local, regional, national, and global conversations, sharing their creativity, innovations, and values. What’s right for girls is also right for the planet.

Gender Equity Impacts Every Community

Throughout the 20th century, American women fought for the right to vote, sexual autonomy, and equal responsibilities at home, especially as more and more young women entered the workforce. This story is not unique to America.

This fight continues. Girls around the world suffer from gender-based violence, economic disparity, and a lack of reproductive health agency. Women are still tasked with the majority of household work and child-rearing. This unequal division of labor—coupling unpaid labor with underlying stereotypes about the role of girls in society—prevents girls from achieving economic independence, attending school, and determining their own futures. 

By addressing gender inequality in the home, we can broaden opportunities for girls and shift the dynamics around reproductive health, education, and choice for girls on the societal level. 

Access to Education Equips Young Leaders

There is a stark difference in representation of men and women in the workplace. This is particularly true in industries such as science, technology, finance, and politics. In fact, women today make up only 20% of the world’s legislators. In 1970, women made up a miniscule 8% of workers in STEM-related fields. In 2019, that number rose to 27%. Women have come a long way in these industries, but it’s clear there is still a long way to go.

If we want to nurture women to be the leaders of tomorrow, we have to think differently about the way we educate girls today. Girls’ rights to education are at risk around the world. Today, only 39% of rural girls attend secondary school. As these girls become adults, many do not have the literacy skills necessary for higher education or gainful employment. Women as a whole comprise more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate population.

But these disparities in education and the measurable effect on employment opportunities outline a clear path forward. When given the right tools for success, women achieve great things for themselves and their communities. Literacy is paramount to acquire gainful employment, achieve financial independence, and pursue one’s dreams. 

Apart from financial stability and a decreased likelihood of abuse, girls who are invested in at a young age develop a sense of self-determination, resilience, and personal agency. Through proper education, women and girls grow independent and become less reliant on men in a way that permanently transforms the power dynamic—both within the home and outside of it. 

To achieve sustainability, we need the brilliance of the millions of young girls in the world. We need their energy, creativity, ingenuity, and compassion. We need women who are empowered to engage in their futures, and who realize their power in both familial and global realms. Education is an essential need—a basic human right—that can enable the realization of a different type of global community than the one we have today. If we want to reenvision the world, we need empowered women and girls.

Reproductive Health Ensures Opportunity

As we lay the foundation for girls’ rights in the classroom, we must realize that just as a woman’s education directly impacts her ability to determine the direction and focus of her life, so does her ability to control if and when she has children. Self-determination is not possible without education, and it is also not possible without the ability to control pregnancy.

Not allowing women to control their own destinies has ramifications beyond enabling women to drive global change and sustainability. Women’s reproductive health also directly impacts the number of people on the planet—all of whom deserve clean air, fresh water, comfortable housing, and nourishing food. 

When girls make their own reproductive choices, they in turn play a critical environmental role. An estimated 228,000 people are added to the world every day. By the year 2050, if the world’s population is 9.7 billion people instead of 10.8 billion people, carbon emissions will be reduced by 16-29%. This would reduce the amount of carbon in 2050 by one gigaton. Women taking control of their own reproductive choices is also 1,000 times less expensive than technological solutions. However,  this population stabilization is only possible if girls receive proper education and access to resources around reproductive health. 

Sustainability efforts can’t flourish in a vacuum, so any solution-oriented approach must be multi-dimensional. However, advocating for girls’ rights must be considered foundational. Changing patterns of living for girls—both educational and reproductive—is not an ancillary or isolated goal, but rather a critical one if we hope to improve the lives of individuals, communities, and the global population.