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Unleashing the Power of Women and Girls

Kanya D'Almeida

WASHINGTON, Sep 14 2011 (IPS) - Kakenya Ntaiya was engaged at age five and would have been married by 13 if her mother had not insisted that she attend her small village school in Enoosaen, Kenya.

As she got older, Ntaiya made a bargain with her father that she would be circumcised only if he allowed her to finish high school, then negotiated with her village elders to be granted permission to travel to the United States for university.

“It was in college that I learned for the first time that genital mutilation and cutting were illegal, that I had rights, that I had always had rights and there were people out there ready to defend them,” Ntaiya told a group of human rights advocates in Washington D.C. Tuesday.

Ntaiya went on to found the Kakenya Center for Excellence for under- privileged Maasai girls, which grew from humble beginnings to a school of nearly a hundred pupils by 2010.

Ntaiya was one of several youth leaders and advocates who gathered at the National Geographic headquarters this week in an attempt to drum up awareness about the fact that next month the world’s population will hit seven billion.

“The world of seven billion presents us with the opportunity to talk about what former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan described as ‘problems without passports'”, Peter Yeo, vice president of the U.N. Foundation, said Tuesday.

“And of these transnational issues, the most pressing question will be how to unleash the power of women and girls in the struggle to alleviate poverty and accelerate progress on global development targets such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he added.

In 1804, the world’s population was a billion. Exactly 123 years later, it had doubled to two billion. At the current pace, human beings are populating the planet by an additional 78 million people a year – the equivalent of the total populations of Canada, Australia, Greece and Portugal combined.

Five people are born every second. By the time you reach the end of this article, the population would have increased by 167 people.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the principle architect of actions directed towards meeting the challenges of future population, nearly all of that growth – 97 out of every 100 people – is occurring in the developing world, where rights for women and girls are particularly scant.

“Seven billion is a call to action,” Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA, told IPS. “Together, as part of this historic movement, we can make a huge difference in the lives of girls and women, and promote human development for the benefit of current and future generations.”

However, global trends are not as optimistic as Osotimehin’s predictions.

By the UNFPA’s own figures, two-thirds of the world’s 776 million illiterate people are women, 101 million primary school-aged children are not receiving proper education, 134 million women are “missing” worldwide as a result of sex-selective abortions and neglect of infant girls, and over 350,000 women – about one every 90 seconds – dies from complications in childbirth, 99 percent of them in developing countries.

In addition, according to National Geographic, modern industrial production has radically altered the patterns of human settlement, pushing thousands of farming families and communities out of the countryside and into megacities – urban centers of more than 10 million residents.

National Geographic estimates that in 1975, the world was home to only three such cities. By 2010, 21 megacities had sprung up all around the world. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas.

Of this urban population, according to U.N. habitat, the slum population reached a staggering one billion last year, with “emerging market economies’ like India, Brazil and China being home to the some of the world’s biggest ‘hyper slums’.”

Given the fact that women comprise the majority of city-dwellers, and that 70 percent of women face gender-based violence – primarily in urban areas – in their lifetime, this development of human civilisation does not bode well for the women of the world. Despite these harsh and daunting realities, experts and activists believe that the moment can be catalysed to spur the world into action.

“Population itself is not the issue,” Osotimehin said Tuesday. “It is the disaggregation between communities and populations. We don’t lack space – we lack equity.”

“Nine hundred million young women are living without access to education and health, they bear children too early, are excluded from concepts of active, political citizenship and awareness of their place as possible leaders in the global community,” he added.

Monique Coleman, an actress-turned-U.N. Youth Champion who has traveled the world as an advocate for gender equality, described her own awakening to the power of an individual to impact huge change in society.

Coleman described her first trip to Kenya on a sanitation project with UNICEF.

“I was shown into a room where I expected to see sanitation equipment that needed delivering. Instead, I saw a woman sitting in a corner, sewing. I had no idea what this woman had to do with our project, until I realised that she was sewing reusable, sanitary napkins for girls,” Coleman explained.

“That was when it hit me that we, as outsiders, don’t know what’s best for a community. It’s the locals, and especially the women, who have the wisdom, skill and expertise to innovate creative, sustainable solutions for their own people,” she said.

“By empowering these women, I am completely hopeful that we can meet the challenges of a world of seven billion,” she added.

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