On a recent visit to Nigeria, I saw the transformative difference UK aid is making to girls living in the developing world.
I visited a school where, two years ago, poor teaching had led to low attendance and children missing out on vital education.
Since then, that school has almost doubled its number of pupils, thanks in part to teacher training funded by UK aid.
Over half the children enrolled are now girls, with dreams to be business leaders, doctors and journalists of the future.
Those dreams are made more possible by the support of UK aid.
Yet, despite the progress we are making, millions of girls around the world are still being left behind.
That is why today, on the International Day of the Girl, I am committing to put women and girls at the heart of UK aid.
Every year 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married, cutting short their education. Some 130 million girls worldwide are missing out on school. An estimated three million girls a year are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation.
This unacceptable injustice continues into adult life.
In 18 countries women must have permission from their husbands to work. Where they do work, women earn less and have fewer workers’ rights.
Over 210 million women in developing countries, who want to delay or prevent pregnancy, do not have access to modern contraception that would allow them to decide if, and when, to have children. In 18 countries women must have permission from their husbands to work. Where they do work, women earn less and have fewer workers’ rights.
Giving every girl in the world the chance of a healthy, educated, and economically independent life is essential if we are to end poverty around the world.
Women typically reinvest up to 90 % of their income in education, health and nutrition, compared to 40% for men, meaning that investing in female-led businesses can transform societies.
Experts estimate advancing economic equality globally could add $12 trillion to global GDP or increase the world’s economy by around 15 per cent. Think of the difference this could make to the future of developing countries.
The UK is already making progress and has supported over 5.8 million girls into education since 2015.
In Ethiopia recently, I met a group of teenage girls who were learning to code. One of them told me: “Education is a weapon that can change the world”.
Last month I announced a £600 million aid package to give millions more women and girls living in the world’s poorest countries access to family planning
Educating girls prevents child marriage and early pregnancy and helps women get jobs, which boosts household incomes and economic growth. It gives girls a voice and helps them to shape their own futures.
However, getting girls into education is only part of the challenge. We must also support them to stay in education.
In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly all adolescent girls who have ever been pregnant are not in school, ranging from 95% in Zambia to 99% in Tanzania.
The UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to promote accessible healthcare, available to all, and we have been very clear that this must include sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls.
Last month I announced a £600 million aid package to give millions more women and girls living in the world’s poorest countries access to family planning. We have also increased our support to tackling curable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, three preventable diseases that are still indiscriminately killing millions of the world’s poorest. AIDS remains the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age globally.
The UK will continue to advocate on behalf of women and girls around the world. That is why earlier this month I announced a commitment to ramp up the UK’s efforts to tackle the shocking injustice of preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children in the developing world.
Eliminating global poverty will need the talent and potential of all, not just half the population.
My two daughters have grown up with the same freedoms and opportunities as their male cousins; we must aspire for that to be every girl’s reality.
It is only through empowering women and girls that we can break the cycle of poverty in the developing world.
Alok Sharma is the international development secretary and Conservative MP for Reading West