To Change Africa’s Path, We Need to Support Rural Girls from Day One

“This child is going to be a leader.”

This is what a friend of my father said when I was eight years old. As I grew older, my father never let me forget it. “Remember what Uncle John said,” he kept telling me. “You are destined to be a leader.” I didn’t know a leader of what, but I came to believe that in every situation, I had an opportunity to do something, to lead and make a difference. I was lucky to have a father who believed in his daughters’ potential and believed in education.

As I recount in a new book—From Day One: Why Supporting Girls Aged 0 to 10 Is Critical to Change Africa’s Path—many African girls are not that lucky. My childhood friend Chrissie was the star pupil in our village, but she had to drop out of secondary school because her family could not afford the school fees. I kept studying and later became president of Malawi. But before she was even 18, Chrissie was married with a child, and she still lives in the village. Chrissie’s story is a tragedy of unfulfilled potential. A tragedy for Chrissie herself, but also a tragedy for Malawi and for Africa. In fact, it is a global tragedy: over 130 million girls around the world are not in school through no fault of their own.

Girls and women are one of our continent’s most valuable assets. Yet there are still many Chrissies: bright, ambitious village girls full of potential, ready to become the kind of leaders that Africa needs so badly but will not get. All because that potential is not given a chance to thrive. 

If we want to change Africa’s narrative, we need women leaders—a lot of women leaders. Having more women in leadership roles has a positive effect on policy decisions, as female leaders focus more on issues that impact women, as well as on corruption. Where there is conflict, peace agreements have a better chance to be concluded and to last when women are involved in negotiations. There is no shortage of evidence that when women and girls are given the same education, health and economic opportunities, and an equal voice in society, the whole country benefits.  

Yet most of the many African girls who are born leaders face too many obstacles to realize their potential. Those who live in villages are often locked up in a vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and harmful traditions. In sub-Saharan Africa, 60 percent of girls live in rural areas; in some countries, including my own but also Burundi, Uganda, and Niger, the proportion is over 80 percent. If we are going to achieve the Sustainable Developments Goals, we cannot leave them behind. 

Programs seeking to empower women and adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa—from microcredit, entrepreneurship, and education to gender-specific cash transfers and social assistance—have multiplied. Interventions focused on women and adolescent girls are critical to close the gender gap and foster female leaders. These efforts are essential to the future of Africa.

Yet a critical piece is missing: interventions supporting rural girls from 0 to 10 years old.

Gender interventions tend to focus on women and adolescent girls, while programs targeting young children are typically not gender specific. Unfortunately, the discrimination and social norms that penalize girls and women do not start at adolescence, particularly in rural areas. By the time African girls turn 10, it is often too late to undo the damage that has already been done. These young girls’ minds and bodies have already been shaped in ways that bear consequences for the rest of their lives, stunting their leadership potential or even silencing it entirely.

As an African woman leader who grew up on the African soil, I have seen firsthand how young rural girls face obstacles in areas that are critical in shaping their future as they grow into adolescents and women.

As argued in my book, we need to take a good look at nutrition, household work, sexual violence, harmful traditions, and education. Nutrition affects the ability to learn and is also crucial to fight off diseases. Young rural girls work much harder than boys at household chores and caregiving, which not only leaves little time for education or play but also has lasting consequences on their physical development. Unfortunately, many village girls between 0 and 10 years old suffer sexual violence and the impact of harmful traditions. Child marriage and female genital mutilation have rightfully received attention, but there are many other practices with similarly devastating effects that remain unspoken and ignored. And although much progress has been made on closing the gender gap in primary education, enrollment data fail to tell the whole story. In addition, many of the seeds of the inequality that persists at the secondary level are planted well before girls reach high school.

None of these areas can be tackled in isolation. Change requires more data and evidence, new laws, and the willingness and ability to enforce them, as well as a shift in mentalities and traditions. Change is also a spiraling loop and relies on more girls and women gaining equal education and economic opportunities, access to leadership and voice—which is why the efforts deployed to support adolescent girls and women are essential. But if we all come together—men and women, governments and civil society, Africans and non-Africans—these obstacles can be surmounted.  

Although women and girls face an uneven playing field at all ages, the challenges that they confront in their first 10 years are not as well understood or perhaps even as visible. But they are nonetheless devastating and must be tackled, for much of the future of young girls is shaped during these critical years.

So let us all do our part. Because every girl deserves a chance from day one.

Read more here.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.