Hellen Leiman is pursuing a college education under Free the Children’s We Schools program. (Photography: Sara Cornthwaite)Results of a new pilot project in Bangladesh show that educating girls under age 18 can reduce child marriages by up to one-third. It’s another weapon in a growing arsenal that shows how powerful education can be at eradicating poverty and other social problems. In my former role as executive director of the nonprofit Free the Children, I had the opportunity to meet Hellen Leiman, a stellar student in Free the Children’s Kisaruni All Girls School. Education allowed Hellen to avoid being married off at age 14. The Leiman family was extremely poor. Hellen’s father couldn’t afford her school fees and worried that any dowry he might gain from her marriage would diminish as she grew older in school. That potential loss would impact the whole family. But the head of the school passionately pleaded with Hellen’s father to let her accept a scholarship. She assured him that his daughter’s schooling would only increase the family’s prospects for a more secure future. Hellen went to school and, in the past year, she graduated near the top of her class. She is now studying to become a teacher at Free The Children’s new Kisaruni Technical College. In Canada, we sometimes forget that quality education is a social benefit that millions of people are missing out on. A United Nations report says there are still 31 million girls of primary school age out of school—compared to 27 million boys—and about half of the girls will likely never get an education. What’s so disheartening about this inequity isn’t just the impact on individual girls but also the loss of potential for communities, countries and the world. There are countless studies that show the dramatic ripple effects of educating girls. It is an investment in an entire country’s well-being. One article by Julia Gillard, a distinguished fellow at the Center for Universal Education, says that if all women in developing countries had a secondary school education, rates of infant and child malnutrition would decrease and vaccination rates would rise. Gillard also refers to a study that says educating girls in sub-Saharan Africa could increase agricultural output by 25 percent, likely because their education would include information on the environment and farming. I am immensely proud that Free the Children’s We Villages program has raised the bar beyond primary and high school by building a new college. We saw girls in two of our high schools graduating at the top of their year among all students in South Narok province, Kenya. They knew their education had to continue. I was also pleased to see that Sustainable Development Goals set by global leaders last fall aim to give all children free primary and secondary education in the next 15 years. Growing up through two wars in the Middle East, I could have easily become one of millions of girls who didn’t reach her potential. Hellen had a school principal to fight for her right to further studies. Fortunately, my parents were my advocates. They empowered me to pursue university and today education is the foundation of my success. We can all help girls by donating to or advocating for their education—even by talking about the issue with friends and on social media. Too many girls and young women don’t have a champion. They need our voices. Learn how women's education rates differ around the world.