The teenagers of rural western Kenya I have met during the past year have no shortage of ambition. Especially the girls. They want to be doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers and pilots.
One girl, an eighth-grader name Jackline, rises long before the sun every morning to begin making breakfast tea for her family. By 4:30, she is walking the mile to her primary school for a special study session to prepare for the national standard exams that will determine where she will go to high school next year, if her marks are good enough. Then after a full day of classes, and a break for a meager dinner, she returns to school after dark for another hour or two of study.
She hopes to become a nurse, and maybe work for the village pharmacy where the nurse in charge is desperate for an assistant.
Realizing these ambitions is essential for the economic development of rural areas in the developing world, particularly Africa. A new Chicago Council report, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, highlights the untapped potential of adolescent girls living in rural areas.
The report, being released today (a day on which three women, two of them Africans, were award the Nobel Peace Prize), concludes: Adolescent girls must be a key part of successful agricultural and rural economic development strategies, as they are many of the world’s future farmers, rural leaders and decision makers. The report focuses on how girls can uniquely contribute to agriculture.
“If the world is to meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050, we must invest in the human capital of those with the potential to transform agricultural economies – adolescent girls,” said Catherine Bertini, the former director of the World Food Program and the lead author and chair of the project that produced the report. “Already, they carry much of families’ burdens; with opportunity, they can be major change agents for rural communities and nations. As nations are rediscovering the importance of agricultural development, we want to ensure that the new definition of rural economies’ strengths includes the critical role of adolescent girls.”
The report also rightly emphasizes that rural adolescent girls face a triple challenge due to their location, gender, and age.
Many of them are daughters of smallholder farmers, who are the poorest and hungriest people in the world. The role of these rural girls is to do much of the domestic work, like gathering firewood, fetching water and sweeping the homestead, along with their mothers, and also to help out in the field during planting and harvest times. Many of them are discouraged from thinking big. They are often expected to get married and work a farm, like their mothers. As a result, women do most of the farming on smallholder plots in Africa. Girls often take a backseat to the boys in education; if a family has limited resources to afford school fees, it’s the girls who are usually the first to be kept home.
This is why agriculture development is so important, as it is a prime agent for empowering women. The more productive their farming is, the more significant their role in feeding the family and generating income is. Indiscriminate cuts in foreign aid that end up slashing agriculture development spending have a disproportionate impact on women in the developing world.
The Chicago Council report recommends that adolescent girls be incorporated into country-wide agricultural development plans, have more opportunities to receive agricultural skill building and participate in rural peer groups, and have greater access to agricultural inputs and credit. Donors are also encouraged to dedicate climate change adaptation and mitigation monies targeting natural resource management to programs including girls.
I’m finding that their mothers are also pushing for their daughters to live better lives. Just as there is no lack of ambition among rural girls, there is no lack of determination among their mothers.
In a group discussion I had with women farmers in western Kenya, it was clear that girls’ access to land was a top priority. In rural areas like this, the custom is that land passes from fathers to sons. Girls rarely are allowed to stay on the land on which they were born.
A number of the women farmers pointed to Kenya’s new constitution, saying it ensures that all children, no matter their gender, can inherit land. And these women want to make sure that holds. Most of them had to stop their education before finishing high school because their parents couldn’t afford the fees. If they make enough money from increasing the size and nutritious value of their harvests, they say they will seek to buy land with the intent to pass it on to their daughters. If such action becomes common, it will lead to a social transformation in the rural areas.
“Land is important for girls because not all of them will be able to complete school like the boys,” said one of the farmers.
“Or get jobs,” added another.
“Land is life,” insisted a third.
These women farmers know that their climb from hunger and poverty will be long and arduous, but they also know that one measure of success will be their daughters being able to capitalize on opportunities that they never had.