Teenage girls have a unique kind of power. We’ve seen just how incredible they can be this weekend, when American teen Emma Gonzalez stood in front of a million people to protest mass shootings and gun culture.
There she remained silent for 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the amount of time it took a gunman to kill 17 of her classmates. She then delivered an unforgettable speech. A speech that reverberated around the globe within minutes of her delivering it. Words that cut like knives, impossible to ignore.
We’ve seen this type of power before, when a girl named Malala, at just 15, survived a gunshot wound to the face designed to silence her. The violence only strengthened her resolve and she remains today a fearless voice for millions of marginalised girls just like her.
Last year in Malawi, a young woman by the name of Memory raised her voice in a culture where girls are routinely silenced. She demanded an end to child marriage. She rallied her peers and pushed the Government to change the legal age of child marriage to 18. And she won.
Teenage girls are a force to be reckoned with. That’s why it’s that much more tragic when their voices are ignored.
Today and tomorrow, I am in Parliament. By my side, I have 20-year-old Courtney and 18-year-old Asha. Why? Because we think it’s time teenage girls worldwide were recognised for the potential they have: a potential that is so often robbed from them by child marriage, early pregnancy or denial of an education.
We’re here to present 21 MPs with Plan International Australia’s report, Half a Billion Reasons: How investing in adolescent girls can change the world. It outlines the huge challenges girls in the developing world are up against and makes a compelling case to invest in them.
I want to share a statistic with you that makes my heart sink. In South Sudan, a girl is three times more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish her education. How can this be?
In Bangladesh, 58 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18, and one in five before they even turn 15.
Despite being one of the most at-risk groups on the planet, some 500,000,000 teenage girls around the world barely rate a mention in Australia’s foreign policy agenda or aid budget. Except in the most extraordinary circumstances, they are being quietly ignored by everyone.
At some level, girls are used to being snubbed. Around the world, their views on their own futures are the last to be listened to. They’re fed less and last, they’re pulled from school sooner than their brothers, they are often confined to the home for a life of housework, child-rearing and silence.
Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl, or raised a teenage girl, or even known a teenage girl for that matter, knows that they’re not the same as everyone else. They’re getting their first period and navigating all the pitfalls and milestones of adolescence, while at the same time working out what to do with their future and whether their aspirations are socially acceptable ‘for a girl’.
Around the world, they also face the prospect of child marriage, teen pregnancy, taboos around menstruation that isolate and shame them, and being pulled out of school just for being a girl.
Consider this: if all the 10-year-old girls in the developing world were actually given the chance to finish their education, they would contribute $21 billion a year to their economies.
If women were given the right to participate in the economy at a level comparable to men, global GDP would grow by 26 per cent or $USD 28 trillion, by 2025.
And finally, when girls over 16 earn an income, they reinvest 90 per cent of it in their families, compared to men who reinvest only 30 per cent. Teenage girls are absolutely the key to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
There are half a billion adolescent girls in the developing world. By 2030, they will be the world’s workers, leaders and mothers. They’ll be the ones determining the course of their countries.
If they’re healthy, free from fear and violence, educated and employed, they’ve got a shot at leading the world out of gender inequality and poverty. But if things continue as they are now, nothing will change. Girls’ lives won’t improve by chance.
That’s why I’m in Parliament today, with our youth activists, asking our elected Members to do better for teenage girls everywhere. We’re calling on them to make adolescent girls visible in Australia’s aid and foreign policy agenda.
I hope our leaders will hear the voices of the extraordinary young Australian women with me today, who are using their special brand of power to speak up for their silenced sisters.
Susanne Legena is CEO of Plan International Australia . Read the Half a Billion Reasons report here.