This week, as we approach International Women’s Day, government leaders are gathering at the World Bank Global Forum on Human Capital discussing, among other things, the importance of investing in women and girls in Africa. As countries struggle to control the COVID-19 pandemic, save lives, and rebuild economies, such investments are more important than ever and, in fact, will lead to a more resilient and inclusive recovery for all.

Every day, adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa face barriers caused by cultural norms, practices, and biases that limit their access to economic and social opportunities relative to boys, including health care and education services. COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges, with girls and women disproportionately affected by the economic impacts and disruptions in core services caused by pandemics.

For example, following school closures during the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, many girls did not return to school, and teenage pregnancies rose. COVID-19 threatens similar increases in school dropouts, child marriages, adolescent childbearing, and gender-based violence. These terrible outcomes not only shatter lives and aspirations and limit opportunities for girls to achieve their full potential, but they also harm their children. Indeed, children of young and poorly educated mothers often face higher risks of dying by the age of five, being malnourished, and doing poorly in school.

Conversely, investing in adolescent girls in Africa and around the world pays dividends. Each additional year of schooling raises an African woman’s earnings by 14 percent, reduces the likelihood of early marriage and pregnancy, and can lead to higher standards of living. Investments in programs focused on adolescent girls, from life skills and vocational training, to sexual and reproductive health, to behavioral interventions and cash transfers are delivering results.

These types of programs have an important role to play given the expected sharp increase in Africa’s working age population over coming decades. They can help the region achieve a demographic transition—a shift from high to lower birth rate accompanied by improved income opportunities—to reap the benefits of a demographic dividend.

Read the full article about centering girls in Africa's COVID-19 response by Mamta Murthi at Brookings.