Joyce Banda, the former president of Malawi, has warned development interventions which focus on girls aged 10 and older may be “too late” and called for an emphasis to also be placed on younger children.
Her comments came in the wake of a new United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2016 report, published last week, which said the future of development will be shaped by what happens to 10-year-old girls in poor countries.
Speaking at the Girl Summit event in Washington, D.C., Banda said: “I would ask us to look back and focus on girl children aged zero to 10. I am making a case that this is an age where we need to start focusing our attention.”
Banda, who was Africa’s second-ever female president and the first female president of Malawi, warned that interventions which target girls aged 10 and above might come “too late” for many.
She said that girl children living in rural parts of Africa were being deprived of food, socialization and education from a much younger age than 10 and recalled her own experience as a five-year-old child carrying heavy loads in her village which left her with a spinal “deformity”.
Banda, who was minister of gender and child welfare in Malawi before serving as president from 2012 to 2014, also singled out brutal social practices that often target young girls for abuse, such as HIV-infected men “raping a baby child” because they believe this would cure them.
The State of the World Population 2016 report makes the argument that “age 10 is a critical juncture in a girl’s life” and that what happens to her will “determine the trajectory for the rest of her life,” but also the lives of a much wider group.
Every year spent in full-time education delivers an additional 11.7 percent increase in wages in later life for girls (compared with 9.6 percent for men), according to the study.
This means developing countries could potentially benefit from a $21 billion annual economic boost if all 10-year-old girls completed secondary school.
It also proposes the success or failure of the sustainable development agenda could be judged by the life trajectory of a 10-year-old girl.
Promoting and increasing the number of female leaders in developing countries, to act as roles models and focus the political agenda on women and gender issues, will help reduce harmful and discriminatory practices faced by many girls in poor countries, according to Banda.
She also said “rights education must start early in schools,” and that girls should be encouraged to speak out when those rights are threatened. For example, giving girls good access to education will be key to ending widespread but harmful social practices such as female genital mutilation.