An international consortium of leaders is meeting today in the United Kingdom to mark the first-ever Girl Summit. This is an enormously important event not just for women and girls in developing countries, but for humanity as a whole. I work in Africa, trying to generate economic prosperity in an isolated rural area in Benin, and when I look to the future, it is abundantly clear to me that women are the primary engine of social change and development. They have forever been held down in patriarchal societies, and kept on the margins economically due to lack of education, and other oppressive practices.
Girl Summit 2014 is seeking to raise awareness of two of the most devastating practices that greatly disadvantage women (and thus, society as a whole), and feed the tenacity of poverty: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage. Their goal is to eradicate these practices worldwide within a generation.
FGM is a ritualistic practice among many ethnic groups, and is very concentrated on the African continent. It is mistakenly often attributed to specific religious groups, especially Muslims, which is a myth in dire need of debunking. It carries a host of dangerous health risks, including infection, complications in childbirth and painful elimination. The psychological scars can be even greater. Thankfully, the practice is being criminalized in many countries, however only through education can the mentality behing this abhorrent practice be addressed, and the practice halted.
Child marriage brings with it many health risks as well. Bearing children before physical maturity greatly increases maternal and infant mortality rates. Also, girls who marry young often do not go to school, thus reinforcing the cycle of poverty. The fear a young girl must feel when forced into marriage must also be very emotionally scarring. Mitigating this practice would go a long way toward integrating women into economies, benefiting entire societies.