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West African girls to get major boost

22nd January 2009

Adolescent girls in the West African nation of Liberia are about to get a major boost from an innovative scheme piloted by the World Bank and Portland, Oregon-based Nike Foundation.


In April, along with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Liberian government and with additional help from Denmark, they will officially launch the US $20 million Adolescent Girls Initiative, a unique public-private venture aimed at transitioning adolescent girls and young women in some of the world's neediest countries from school into productive employment.

"Girls are an economic powerhouse," Andrew Morrison, lead economist in the World Bank's Gender and Development Unit, said in an interview. "It's untapped."

The Liberian pilot program is expected to equip 2,500-3,000 girls aged 15-24 with the skills required to sustain themselves as entrepreneurs or as wage-earners, and it's scheduled to run through 2011, Morrison said.

The Liberian government is now deciding which six organizations, in a competitive bidding process, will train the first cohort of teenaged girls-who have until now had little access to education or employment in this impoverished, war-ravaged country.

Planning is meanwhile under way to launch similar programmes in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Togo, southern Sudan, and Nepal.

"If you look around the world, you see that there's been vast progress in reaching equality of educational opportunities for girls...and this is huge," Morrison said, adding, "but there's been a lot less progress in terms of access to economic opportunity in using that education."

"These are small projects," Morrison said, ranging from US $3 million-$5 million, but that's "enough to do a really nice project".

"We need to work in countries where what we do can be catalytic, where there's enough commitment and passion so that if the project works, the government, the World Bank, and other organisations can take what we do and really take it to scale."

The program in Liberia will necessarily teach life skills, Morrison said, including how to deal with the sexual violence endemic since Liberia's brutal 1989-2003 civil war.

Most adolescents in Liberia "have no concept of what wage employment is because no one they know has ever been employed by someone else-they've all been engaged in self-employment as a survival strategy," he said.

Liberian girls "don't have a lot of people they can trust or confide in, and in many cases it limits their ability to work with other people, whether girls or adults."

Unlike many other aid projects, the Adolescent Girls Initiative will base it training programs on evident demand-with girls training to produce goods and services the market needs and is willing to pay for.

The potential benefits are enormous. 

In numerous studies, economists have found that expanding women's access to employment, wages, and credit benefits whole families, who then produce fewer, healthier, and better educated children.

"Investing in adolescent girls is a  sure-fire investment in the future," Sarah Craven, chief of the United Nations Population Fund's Washington office. "When girls are educated, healthy, and empowered, they transfer their new knowledge and skills to their families and break the cycle of poverty."

Grim reality

Statistics related to the health and welfare of Liberia's 3.5 million people are sobering.

Civil war killed some 250,000 people, displaced more than 1 million, and ravaged the economy and civil society. HIV/AIDS poses a major challenge, maternal mortality is high, literacy is estimated at 20%, and life expectancy hardly rises about 40. Illegal drugs are cheap and common.

Experts say sexual predation is common, along with sex in exchange for grades at school and university. Girls often get pregnant and are then forced to drop out.

In 2006, Save the Children-UK reported that 60-80% of secondary schoolgirls in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, had been forced into prostitution to pay for their education and food, with Liberian men openly preying on younger girls whom they regard as posing fewer health risks than older women.

The unemployment rate hovers around 70%, and some 70% of women and girls are believed to have been raped during the country's 14-year civil war.

The country has just 122 doctors and 600 nurses to treat its 3.5 million people, and the country's health minister recently told Agence France-Presse that the shortage is so acute that he moonlights as a provincial surgeon.

In 2008, the country's lone mental health specialist complained publicly of an upsurge in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because the country's two rounds of disarmament failed to address the psychosocial needs of ex-combatants, especially youths.

Rising tide

The Adolescent Girls Initiative emerges amid a growing tide of interest in the world's 900 million girls aged 10 to 24, with the United Nations Foundation, UN Population Fund, and Nike Foundation at the vanguard.

More and more have access to education, but their economic and employment status hasn't kept up - and girls in Africa are statistically the most likely to drop out of school, have sex, and get married early.

The UN Population Fund meanwhile notes that while boys often see their freedoms and opportunities expand during adolescence, girls just as often see theirs curtailed, with those who belong to marginalised social groups facing additional obstacles.


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Lisa Jaycox

Friday 23rd January 2009 @ 16:53

I wanted to make you aware of another program that supports secondary education for girls in Sudan.

Founded in memory of the late Dr. Dunstan Wai, DWMCF commemorates Dr.
Wai's deep-seated commitment to education and his belief that it plays a
key role in alleviating poverty. The goal of DWMCF is to provide
secondary school scholarships to girls whose families have been
destabilized by political conflict in Southern Sudan. It is an effort to
uplift the academic development of African girls and women who endure
the greater burden of cultural and financial constraints, and to
encourage those who show academic promise but lack the funding to attend
or complete schooling. DWMCF believes that educating young girls is an
investment which goes far beyond educating the individual children.
Education will positively impact their lives, advancing their social
progress, and the well-being of their families and that of the wider

The Dunstan Wai Memorial Charitable Foundation is a 501(c) (3)
organization under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to the
Foundation are fully deductible to the extent allowed by U.S. law.

Read more, and learn how to donate, at:


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