October 7, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Girls Grow

Bungoma, Kenya

The teenagers of rural western Kenya I have met during the past year have no shortage of ambition.  Especially the girls.  They want to be doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers and pilots.

One girl, an eighth-grader name Jackline, rises long before the sun every morning to begin making breakfast tea for her family.  By 4:30, she is walking the mile to her primary school for a special study session to prepare for the national standard exams that will determine where she will go to high school next year, if her marks are good enough.  Then after a full day of classes, and a break for a meager dinner, she returns to school after dark for another hour or two of study.

She hopes to become a nurse, and maybe work for the village pharmacy where the nurse in charge is desperate for an assistant.

Realizing these ambitions is essential for the economic development of rural areas in the developing world, particularly Africa.  A new Chicago Council report, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, highlights the untapped potential of adolescent girls living in rural areas.

The report, being released today (a day on which three women, two of them Africans, were award the Nobel Peace Prize), concludes:Adolescent girls must be a key part of successful agricultural and rural economic development strategies, as they are many of the world’s future farmers, rural leaders and decision makers.  The report focuses on how girls can uniquely contribute to agriculture.

“If the world is to meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050, we must invest in the human capital of those with the potential to transform agricultural economies – adolescent girls,” said Catherine Bertini, the former director of the World Food Program and the lead author and chair of the project that produced the report. “Already, they carry much of families’ burdens; with opportunity, they can be major change agents for rural communities and nations.  As nations are rediscovering the importance of agricultural development, we want to ensure that the new definition of rural economies’ strengths includes the critical role of adolescent girls.”

The report also rightly emphasizes that rural adolescent girls face a triple challenge due to their location, gender, and age.

Many of them are daughters of smallholder farmers, who are the poorest and hungriest people in the world.  The role of these rural girls is to do much of the domestic work, like gathering firewood, fetching water and sweeping the homestead, along with their mothers, and also to help out in the field during planting and harvest times.  Many of them are discouraged from thinking big.  They are often expected to get married and work a farm, like their mothers.  As a result, women do most of the farming on smallholder plots in Africa. Girls often take a backseat to the boys in education; if a family has limited resources to afford school fees, it’s the girls who are usually the first to be kept home.

This is why agriculture development is so important, as it is a prime agent for empowering women.  The more productive their farming is, the more significant their role in feeding the family and generating income is.  Indiscriminate cuts in foreign aid that end up slashing agriculture development spending have a disproportionate impact on women in the developing world.

The Chicago Council report recommends that adolescent girls be incorporated into country-wide agricultural development plans, have more opportunities to receive agricultural skill building and participate in rural peer groups, and have greater access to agricultural inputs and credit.   Donors are also encouraged to dedicate climate change adaptation and mitigation monies targeting natural resource management to programs including girls.

I’m finding that their mothers are also pushing for their daughters to live better lives.  Just as there is no lack of ambition among rural girls, there is no lack of determination among their mothers.

In a group discussion I had with women farmers in western Kenya, it was clear that girls’ access to land was a top priority.  In rural areas like this, the custom is that land passes from fathers to sons.  Girls rarely are allowed to stay on the land on which they were born.

A number of the women farmers pointed to Kenya’s new constitution, saying it ensures that all children, no matter their gender, can inherit land.  And these women want to make sure that holds.  Most of them had to stop their education before finishing high school because their parents couldn’t afford the fees.  If they make enough money from increasing the size and nutritious value of their harvests, they say they will seek to buy land with the intent to pass it on to their daughters.  If such action becomes common, it will lead to a social transformation in the rural areas.

“Land is important for girls because not all of them will be able to complete school like the boys,” said one of the farmers.

“Or get jobs,” added another.

“Land is life,” insisted a third.

These women farmers know that their climb from hunger and poverty will be long and arduous, but they also know that one measure of success will be their daughters being able to capitalize on opportunities that they never had.

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

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Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

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Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

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Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

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Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

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Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

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Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

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Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

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Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


| By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

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The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

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Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

| By Roger Thurow

Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Multimedia

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

Learn more »

EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »