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Better education for girls; better future for the world – Commissioner Piebalgs' op-ed on International Day of the Girl Child

As I travel around the world to see the European Commission's work in developing and partner countries I see time and time again how important women and girls are in helping their local communities to progress. Girls really can be the agents of change, but too often, they are held back by poverty.

The statistics speak for themselves and are a terrifying reminder of how much more needs to be done. 75 percent of those living in Africa with HIV are female. One in three girls worldwide is denied an education; instead often having to work or help to feed and look after their families, from an early age.

Yet it's also clear that investing in girls, particularly in education, makes a huge difference to both the girl and her community. It's amazing to hear, for example, that when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has fewer children. When women and girls earn a living, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man. Women who spend more years in education have better maternal health, fewer and healthier children and greater job prospects.

It's clear then that women and girls are inextricably linked to growth. In our recent policy proposal, an 'Agenda for Change' I outlined growth as one of our key priorities, and one which we will be highlighting on in next week's European Development Days (due to take place in Brussels from 16th-17th October).

That's why we focus on women and girls in everything we do. Whether it is agriculture, energy, trade or health; each and every one of our programmes has to take women and girls into account. Moreover, development is first and foremost about developing people's potential to have a decent life. Therefore at least 20% of EU aid will go directly to human development; this, combined with "female factor" in every development programme, will result in millions of girls receiving the help they need and escaping poverty.

As one of the world’s largest donors, the Commission has already had a crucial role to play in improving the lives of women and girls. Since 2004, for example, thanks to EU support: more than 85,000 new female students have been enrolled in secondary education, more than 4 million births attended by health personnel and 10.8 million consultations on reproductive health carried out.

I'd also like to tell you about one recent programme which really stood out for me, and which clearly shows how our work with girls is making a difference. An innovative project which we worked on in partnership with UNICEF has helped thousands of families, communities and countries to change attitudes and end harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation/cutting in Africa. As a result of education and awareness raising, girls in thousands of communities in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Senegal and Sudan are no longer subjected to this practice.

In Senegal,  in particular, where 28% of women aged 15-49 have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting, astonishing progress has been made. In just under a decade, over 5,300 communities have abandoned the practice; bringing the country close to becoming the first in the world to declare total abandonment, expected by 2015.

Projects like this are a powerful example of the difference we can make to girls' lives when we work together with our partners. On this, the first ever International Girls' Day, let's take the opportunity to look at how we can really give girls the tools that they need to become the future of development.

The article was published in Girl's Rights Gazette, a special magazine issued by PLAN EU Office on the International Day of the Girl Child (11/10/2012)

Last update: 20/10/2014 |  Top