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The Smartest Investment We Could Make: The Future of Girls

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.)

Girls_in_classroomAs 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.

As a foundation, we knew we wanted to fund initiatives that would have the greatest possible long-term impact for girls, and we knew we wanted to partner with nonprofit organizations that are making steady and significant progress in addressing these unfortunate statistics.

Our research led us to WaterAid and Room to Read, two organizations that  partner with local leaders, government, and nongovernmental organizations, and that take measurement and evaluation seriously, monitoring both short-term progress and the long-term sustainability of their efforts.

Our research also led us to direct our gifts to regions and countries, such as India, where the need is greatest and our dollars will go the farthest. Through our partnership with WaterAid, the Parekh-Vora Charitable Foundation has proudly supported efforts to rehabilitate, repair, and test handpumps; support water, sanitation, and hygiene education in schools (particularly important for adolescent girls); and provide skills training so that local communities can better manage water, sanitation, and hygiene services. 

Equally rewarding from our perspective has been our support  for Room to Read's Girls' Education program, which is designed to boost the number of years girls spend in schools and improve the girl-friendliness of school environments. We have also supported the creation of a new library at a government primary school in rural India, along with training for librarians and teachers.

Our experience with these two organizations has been positive for several reasons. First, both WaterAid and Room to Read are deeply connected to the local communities in which they work. Second, both organizations take project monitoring and evaluation seriously, with excellent results. And third, both organizations provide regular updates from the field related to our financial contributions. In our minds, all three are essential for an investment in global development work to be effective, and we recommend that all donors think of them as critical prerequisites when selecting a nonprofit or nongovernmental organization with which to partner. As a father, I want all children to smile and thrive as my two girls do. By focusing on water and sanitation, and on primary school education, the Parekh-Vora Charitable Foundation hopes to do its small part in improving the lives of girls around the world.

Still, when it comes to water, toilets, and education services for girls, more attention from foundations and donors is urgently needed. The challenges are great, and now more than ever we believe it is imperative for nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations to collaborate and share ideas, strategies, and resources. The more we collaborate, the greater the impact our shared investments will have on populations in need – even as we reduce the amount lost to duplication and overlap. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "We must be the change we want to see in this world.”

– Anand K. Parekh

(The views expressed in this post are Dr. Parekh's and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)

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