March 13, 2014
(Dr. Anand K. Parekh is an adjunct assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and deputy assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. His family manages the Parekh-Vora Charitable Foundation.)
As the father of two young girls, there is no greater joy for me than to see them smile and thrive. This is why I often remember former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan’s words: "There is no policy for progress more effective than the empowerment of women and girls. A nation that neglects its children, especially girls, is a nation that neglects its future and development." Given this truth, the Parekh-Vora Charitable Foundation has initiated a focus on two areas particularly important to girls: water and sanitation, and primary school education.
We could have chosen many areas of need to focus on, so why girls, why water and sanitation, and why education?
To begin with, we were struck by the numbers: globally, 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation, while 768 million people lack access to safe water. Every day, 2,000 children die from water-related diseases. And each year, 60 million children are born into homes without access to safe water and sanitation. It's estimated that improvements in these areas alone could vastly improve health outcomes, increase productivity, and reduce healthcare costs – while increasing a country's gross domestic product (GDP) by anywhere from 2 percent to 7 percent. Girls are disproportionately affected by the water and sanitation crisis, given that they frequently miss school or drop out altogether because of a lack of a private toilet in school. Tens of thousands of other girls and women spend hours at a time walking for miles while carrying water on their heads that can weigh up to forty pounds. Simply put, access to water, sanitation, and hygiene enables women and girls to take control of their lives.
The numbers around education are equally alarming: 793 million people worldwide are illiterate. Once again, girls and women are disproportionately affected and account for two-thirds of all illiterate persons. In the developing world, an estimated 42 percent of girls are not enrolled in school, while more than 60 million primary school-aged children of both genders do not have access to education and likely will never learn to read or write. The numbers are confounding, not least because we know that even a few years of basic education empowers women and girls to take control of their lives. Educated women are healthier (an extra year of education for girls can reduce infant mortality by 5 percent to 10 percent) and earn more (an extra year of education boosts future wages by 20 percent). If every child were to receive an education, an estimated 171 million individuals would be lifted out of poverty.