Around the world, nearly 1 in 4 girls aged 15–19 is not in education, employment or training, compared to 1 in 10 boys. In Africa, the situation may be even worse, exacerbated by COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic in April 2020 UNESCO estimated that 236 million learners in Africa were not in school, and that about 1 million girls across the continent would likely not be returning to school post-pandemic.
It’s a sad reality that forces us to look at what it really means to be an African girl in today’s world, where statistically, a girl is less likely to have access to the internet than a boy is, and more likely to suffer from gender violence, lack of social protection and essential services including adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health.
Yet despite the realities, we continue to hope for a brighter future for African girls, and to invest in the bold vision of achieving gender equality through the empowerment of girls by giving them the same access to education, health, training and employment opportunities that boys have. We have a responsibility to this, and future generations of girls, to rebuild our economic and social structures in a way that addresses the challenges and vulnerabilities exposed by and created by the pandemic; to move away from harmful practices, and from policies that fail to protect and propel girls towards success.
Societies that fail to do so are societies that also fail to benefit from the diversity of leadership and other skills that young girls and women bring to the table. We have seen this in health, where women remain an untapped and under-utilized talent pool. Despite women comprising 70% of the health workforce, they make up only 25% of senior leadership positions and fill only 5% of positions in top health organizations. The result has been gender-insensitive health policies that fail to consider the unique health needs of girls and women, with damaging consequences for individuals, families and entire communities.
We have the power to transform the future for African girls; to walk the less traveled and often unbeaten path and pave the way for girls to lead. However, we cannot do this if we continue to present men as the default face of leadership, and women who make it into leadership positions as the exception rather than the norm.
As we reflect on this year’s International Day of the Girl Child, which was marked on October 11, we must consider the impact of giving African girls the opportunity to see women who look like them, coming from backgrounds similar to theirs, succeeding in the senior-most positions in their chosen careers, be they in health, technology, the arts or politics.
Elevating more women into leadership positions is a step towards creating pathways for young girls to learn, grow and lead. By investing in individual leadership skills, building community and influencing the environments in which girls and young women live and work, we can catalyze transformative change at individual, institutional and societal levels. By closing inequity and exclusion gaps created by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and child and early marriage, we can inspire and equip a generation of young girls with the skills and networks they need to lead.
At WomenLift Health, our mission is to empower and elevate talented women to use their expertise and leadership skills to improve health and gender equality around the globe. We are working to build scalable platforms to deliver interventions supporting women’s leadership in health, to achieve scale, diversity and transformative change, and to address the barriers that girls and women across Africa continue to face.
We believe strongly that key to achieving this will be to put girls at the centre of the movement for gender equality and allowing them to be co-creators of the change they want to see, from reforms in health and education policy to allowing them to own and shape their narratives. In so doing, we can give them the agency they need to grow into the leaders our continent needs – strong agents of change with the desire and capabilities to create the future we want, today.
For more on gender equality and women’s leadership in health, join me and a host of established and emerging women leaders from across the world at the fifth annual Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, to be held virtually on 15 and 16 November 2021 under the theme: Reimagining Leadership. To register, please visit: https://www.womenlifthealth.org/.