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Published October 31, 2012, 11:35 PM

Positively Beautiful: Empowering girls improves life for everyone

My just-turned-5-year-old son Grant loves preschool. Friends, books and the playground delight. Art projects are amazing creations of random feathers, macaroni, dried leaves and thick paint topped with a sprinkle of glitter. He proudly draws a “G” but struggles with the other letters in his name. He’ll get there soon enough, I know.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

My just-turned-5-year-old son Grant loves preschool.

Friends, books and the playground delight. Art projects are amazing creations of random feathers, macaroni, dried leaves and thick paint topped with a sprinkle of glitter. He proudly draws a “G” but struggles with the other letters in his name. He’ll get there soon enough, I know.

Grant has every reason to hope for a wonderful future and a great education here in Fargo. But if he were a girl in Pakistan or many Asian or African countries, his future might be much different.

Malala Yousafzi, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, lies in a London hospital, airlifted from Pakistan after an assassination attempt by the Taliban a few weeks ago. This nominee for the International Children’s Peace Prize was shot in the head while riding the bus home from school. Her crime: believing that girls deserve the right to education and having the courage to speak out through her blog, “The Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl.”

She began writing at the age of 11, and her blog was picked up by the BBC. This glimpse into her world focused global attention on the issues of girls and women in developing countries.

Malala continued to speak and write despite death threats. There are many difficult stories of child brides, forced prostitution and murder.

Sonia Nassery Cole, a Afghan American and documentary producer of the recently released film “Black Tulip,” says, “We must not let the Malala moment pass. We need to recognize the common aspirations of most families in every country; to refuse to let any religion be hijacked; and to insist on giving all individuals both basic human rights and education, which is the path to understanding and personal improvement. In the region of my birth, as Malala’s plight makes clear, women are both the battleground and our greatest hope.”

The International Day for Girls was celebrated a few days after Malala’s attempted murder. Through a campaign called The Girl Effect, bloggers and writers around the world were encouraged to share the facts and their thoughts about the plight of girls in developing countries.

Little research has been done to understand how investment in girls impacts economic growth and the health and well-being of communities. This lack of data reveals how pervasively girls have been overlooked in the developing world, where there are often no systems to record their birth, their citizenship or even their identity. What we do know suggests that their impact is profound, and has a ripple effect of positive or negative consequence depending on girls’ well-being.

When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children, according to a 1990 United Nation’s population study.

An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school adds 15 to 25 percent, according to the 2002 study “Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update.”

Research in developing countries has shown a consistent relationship between better infant and child health and higher levels of schooling among mothers.

When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man, according to a 2003 Yale News Daily article.

Data show that more than 600 million girls live in the developing world. And out of the world’s

130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls, according to the Human Rights Watch.

Given the chance, girls like Malala are uniquely capable of investing in their communities and making their lives and the lives of their brothers, sisters and communities better. This is the ripple effect that happens when girls are given the support to realize their full potential. This is the Girl Effect. To unleash it, we need to make the great untapped potential of girls known and visible both in their own societies and the rest of the world.

There can be no greater return on investment than helping girls around the world achieve their dreams for a happy and healthy life.

Where to start? Follow Malala’s story. Read the book “Half the Sky,” or watch the companion PBS special. Locally, Deb Dawson started a school for girls in South Sudan. For more information, visit africansoulamericanheart.org.

We all benefit, including my son Grant, from a brighter future for girls.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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