The call to bring back the nearly 300 girls abducted in Nigeria has grabbed the world’s attention. The hashtag “#BringBackOurGirls” has been tweeted nearly 4 million times. Everyone from U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama to stars at the Cannes Film Festival, like Salma Hayek and Mel Gibson, have promoted the campaign. While these efforts have helped shine a spotlight on bringing the abducted Nigerian girls home, it’s also inspired debate about the effectiveness of hashtag activism. Does it really work? Is it a valid form of protestation or just moral narcissism?

As the debate rages on, the young women that inspired the hashtag campaign remain missing. Militants of the Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, have claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, which occurred on April 15. The group has offered to let the girls go in exchange for freeing some prisoners held by the government. Currently, 80 American service members are on the ground in the region to help find the missing schoolgirls.

While the world awaits the fate of the young women — and celebrities and stunned citizens continue to push for their release — the anger that has arisen from the abductions can also be used as an opportunity to make substantive change. Politicians, world citizens, and celebrities concerned about the fate of the young women should funnel their outrage into efforts to invest in women’s education.

Today, there are more than 1.5 billion young people in the world and half of them are young women. As these girls grow and become agents of change in the world, they will play a crucial role in helping to shape the future. Yet too often girls are victims of poverty and exploitation. Too often they are disproportionately affected by violence. Too often they are deprived of basic health services. And too often they are held back from receiving the same educational opportunities as men.

Research has shown one of the most effective ways to generate significant social and economic return is to invest in women’s education. Girls who are more educated earn more money, which they often use to invest in their communities. An educated young woman has better access to health services and gives birth to healthier children. Educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school and better able to care for their kids. And educated women can better resist oppressive limits on what they can achieve in the world.

“Girls’ education is an integral part to virtually every aspect of development. And what is just striking is the amount of hard, rigorous academic data that is, not only about what girls’ education does in terms of returns for income, and for growth, but in terms of health, AIDS prevention, the empowerment of women, and prevention of violence against women,” said economist Gene Sperling at The Council on Foreign Relations in 2004.

A decade after his Sperling’s comments, girls still face significant obstacles that impede their access to education. If there was any doubt about the contributions an educated woman can make to society, consider these facts:

  • When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families. (World Bank)
  • Closing the joblessness gap between girls and their male counterparts would yield an increase in GDP of up to 1.2 per cent in a single year. (World Bank)
  • Investing in girls so that they complete the next level of education would lead to lifetime earnings equivalent to up to 68 percent of annual GDP. (World Bank)
  • Giving women the same access to non-land resources and services as men reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million. (International Fund For Agricultural Development)
  • Globally, 77.6 million girls are currently not enrolled in either primary or secondary education. (UNESCO)
  • Around the world, 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty. (Girl Effect)
  • A single year of primary education correlates with a 10-20 percent increase in women’s wages later in life. (Council on Foreign Relations)
  • Girls’ education is the best single policy for reducing fertility and therefore achieving smaller and more sustainable families. (Council on Foreign Relations)
  • Each extra year of a mother’s schooling reduces the probability of an infant dying by 5-10 percent. (UNICEF)
  • Children of mothers with secondary education or higher are twice as likely to survive beyond age 5 as children of mothers who have no education. (UNICEF)

These findings show that giving girls better access to education can only help improve the health and wealth of our world. As many outraged citizens continue to fight to “Bring Back Our Girls,” let’s not forget that we should also push to give every young woman more opportunities for educational success as well.

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