Girls can change the world.
This may seem like an abstract statement, but we're seeing just how true this statement is with the proliferation of the #MeToo movement internationally. As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl today, let me explain just how concrete and accurate that statement is for girls in developing nations, too.
You may have read stories in the New Zealand Herald over the past two weeks about girls from India and Myanmar. Stories about how they've been married young, forced into labour and sex trafficked.
Take Riya, the 14-year-old daughter of Latika who works as a prostitute in Kolkata, for example. Latika, as a single mother with no skills, no education, no family support and no money, has no option but to work in prostitution. Riya was bound to follow in her mother's footsteps as her mother's clients began to show an interest in her.
However, Latika is determined life will be different for Riya, and Riya has this same determination for her own future.
Latika sends Riya to the World Vision centre in the heart of the red-light district, which provides a safe learning environment for children in the area.
Riya is passionate about her education, she knows that to have freedom of choice and to live the life she wants, she needs to focus and study hard.
Latika is doing all she can to support her daughter's dreams, while Riya dreams of the moment where she can also change her mother's life.
Girls like Riya live in countries and cultures so different to our own here in New Zealand, it can be very difficult to comprehend the challenges they face in simply being born a girl. How could these girls, marginalised and exploited, change the world?
Child marriage, child labour and trafficking are some of the biggest issues facing girls in Asia, in particular. Staggering numbers which are hard to comprehend show just how prevalent these things are: One in nine girls will marry before they turn 15 and millions of children are being trafficked into sex exploitation and forced to work each year.
It can be hard to get your head around those numbers.
Consider a New Zealand classroom, it would be the same as three children from a class of 27 being pulled out of school before Year 11 to be married off, while others mysteriously disappear from class and never return as they are sold into slavery or tricked into working for free. It's not right or fair.
While the causes of exploitation of girls are complex and varied, the impact of violence against and exploitation of girls is the same, world over. Exploitation affects their health, interrupts their education and prevents them from reaching their potential. It robs them of their dignity, their rights, their future and too often, their lives.
For example, girls in early marriage face higher risk of maternal death with early pregnancy being the leading cause of death for 15-19-year-old girls in developing countries.
While a child who drops out of school to work at the age of 12 will most likely earn 60 per cent less over their lifetime compared to a child who finishes high school.
And beyond inflicted physical harm, girls in child marriage, child labour and trafficking will experience emotional and mental trauma, which can continue into adulthood.
But when girls are educated, empowered and protected, they change their own lives, their families and their communities, which collectively impacts their nations and therefore, the world.
According to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) the stats supporting this are prolific and profound.
Educated women are less likely to die in childbirth. If all women had a secondary education – child deaths would be cut in half.
An educated mother improves child nutrition – if all women had a secondary education, 12 million children would be saved from stunting from malnutrition.
Girls with higher levels of education are less likely to have children at an early age. Girls with higher levels of education are less likely to get married at an early age.
Education narrows pay gaps between men and women, and the list goes on.
At World Vision we do everything we can to keep children safe. We work with communities in Asia to protect girls from exploitation and ensure those who are harmed have the care they need to recover. We advocate for an end to violence against girls, hold those responsible to account, and work with survivors to amplify their stories and voices to raise awareness.
Let's go back to Riya, being protected from a life of prostitution and being able to continue her education means she can choose to get married when or if she wants to, she can choose the number of children she has, she'll know how to feed and nourish them and have the means to support them through their childhood education.
Riya can live the life she wants to and help others to do the same.
Protecting girls has a waterfall effect that continues to impact families for generations to come.
What the world will look like in the next 50 years will largely depend on what we do now to protect girls and harness the power for change they hold.
If we work together to empower girls, we can change their worlds, which in turn, will change ours.
• To donate to the Not for Sale campaign go to World Vision