Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection
Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection

Submitted by Mitzi Stark, WILPF – Nov. 10 is Malala Day designated by the United Nations to honor the teenager Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, shot by the Taliban on Oct. 9, 2012 for urging education for girls. This year the United Nations has been focusing on adolescent girls. Like Malala, who was fourteen when she was attacked.

The UN cites three principal areas of concern for this age group ; education, teen pregnancy and protection from violence.

The sad truth is that in many parts of the world, by custom or tradition, or extreme poverty, or because they are valued less than boys, girls do not go to school. Or girls are forced to drop out of school to work, or are forced into a marriage. In some countries where the sex trade flourishes adolescent girls are a marketable commodity. And sometimes armed conflicts keep the school closed.

The sad truth is that education for girls is neglected in many ways, even in more enlightened countries. Literacy rates, compiled by UNESCO, based in Costa Rica and other data collecting agents show that in most countries girls’ education lags behind boys and in countries like Pakistan and India, the education levels of girls to boys is 26%.

The lowest ranking countries in literacy for girls are in Africa with Afghanistan among them. But Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana rank quite high in girls’ literacy which shows that what can be achieved with political will. Costa Rica is ranked 44th with girls almost equal to boys in education at 99%.

Teen pregnancy levels have come down in the world but very slowly. According to Save the Children, 13 million babies were born to teen mothers and one million teen mothers died or suffered from infections or injuries related to birth. Figures include married teens and up to 19 years of age.

Complications from having babies at such an early age are well known; premature births and lower birth rates, less concern over nutrition and growth, and for most teen moms, economic hardship and poverty. In general, a girl’s education stops when she becomes pregnant.

Countries with the highest levels of adolescent pregnancy based on births per 1000 women again are in parts of Africa with Niger topping the list with 204 per 1000 births. In contrast, Switzerland has almost no teen pregnancy which they attribute to sex education and family planning and low cost contraception. Sexually active teens expect to use contraception according a the report. Hong Kong, Japan, Denmark, Austria and Belgium also have low rates of teen pregnancy.

Statistics for Costa Rica show 57 per 1000 births are to teen mothers.

Protection from violence is a major concern as adolescent girls are now targeted by terrorism and are victims of armed conflict, domestic abuse and cultural patterns that favor machismo. Malala and two classmates were gunned down in Pakistan for going to school. In Nigeria 240 girls were kidnapped from their school in April, 2014 and are still missing. Where are the efforts to bring them home? In India girls are subjected to gang rape. Date rape is a newer form of violence in more ‘enlightened’ countries. Family violence, sexual abuse, often by family members, incest and rape victimize girls.

The United Nations and many of the member nations have programs and goals promising education, health and protection against violence for girls, but they are not reaching. Education is the best form of ensuring a better future for girls around the world and gaining a better world for all of us. Education leads to better economic situations, better opportunities, better health including reproductive health, and provides young women with the arms needed to prevent violence.

“Our leaders are still choosing bombs over girls’ education,” said Malala Yousafzai. “Our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons.”

“One teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Our leaders need to listen.

This article was  written by Written by Olive Branch, the collective name for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Heredia group. WILPF was founded in the Hague in 1915 to promote peace and human rights. Contact us at


Stay up to date with the latest stories by signing up to our newsletter, or following us on Facebook.