In 2009, Rachana Sunar’s parents were about to marry off their 15-year-old to a man she’d never met.

Most girls in rural western Nepal are subjected to the age-old practice of child marriage. But Rachana tricked her parents by telling them that if she dropped out of school, they’d have to pay back the previous three years of her scholarship. Rachana’s ruse was inspired not only by her genuine passion for learning, but her determination to show her family and her society that girls are just as valuable as boys.

Around the same time, in Lahore, Pakistan, 12-year-old Zeenat Rafiq befriended 14-year-old Hassan Khan. Over the next few years, their relationship blossomed into romance, despite bitter opposition from Zeenat’s mother who was adamant her daughter marry a man from their own caste to “maintain the family’s honour”. When the youngsters eloped, it was the final straw. Last month, less than two weeks after her wedding, Zeenat was murdered: strangled and set on fire by her own mother.

These stories, and those of millions of other girls, beg the question: What kind of future do we want for Asia and the Pacific? The answer, in large part, lies in how we empower the girls of today – in particular the more than 325 million girls aged 10 to 19 across our region.

It’s a critical question at a time when Asia-Pacific – and our world – have embarked on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which seeks to achieve a life of dignity and equality for all, leaving no one behind.

Image: UNFPA

By 2030, the adolescent and teenage girls of today could form a significant proportion of the workforce – leaders, innovators, teachers – if they can realize their rights and are provided an environment in which to prosper. Millions will be mothers and caregivers for a new generation. But millions will be left behind, unless we create and sustain opportunities for them to shape their own future.

Imagine an adolescent or teenage girl standing at the fork of a road. One branch will make it more likely that she can fulfill her potential and realize her aspirations. This means school and higher education, gainful employment, the choice to marry a partner who will love and respect her, healthy children should she choose to have them, the ability to invest resources for her own children’s well-being and, ultimately, a secure old age.

The other branch, however, makes it so much harder and multiplies the risks she faces: child marriage and other harmful practices, dropping out of school, early and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe childbirth, violence and abuse, informal and erratic employment, a hostile home environment and possible displacement, and an insecure old age.

If every adolescent girl receives a quality secondary education, there will be fewer child deaths, far less malnutrition, and far less teen pregnancy and child marriage. Our workforce will be more productive, our economies will prosper, our countries will be stronger and our societies more caring.

But for teenage girls to be the formidable force for good we need them to be, we need to tackle inequalities and discrimination on many fronts.

At present far too many across Asia and the Pacific are constrained by social norms including harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation, deeply rooted gender roles, unequal power and voice, and outright discrimination – including a widespread preference for boys over girls.

Too often girls are aborted before they are born or even killed at birth, fed more poorly than boys, kept out of school, forced to marry in childhood or adolescence, suffer violence at the hands of their partners, are excluded from decent employment and marginalized in old age.

We must ensure that girls are not invisible.

Services and programmes must target the specific needs of girls aged 10 to 19, address the barriers and disadvantages they face and be underpinned with the realization that girls are not just recipients of interventions and support, but are recognized as agents of development and change.

Laws prohibiting discrimination, violence and harmful practices in all forms must be passed and enforced.

The evidence is clear. Interventions that improve the health, safety, education and the lives of the millions of girls and young women in the Asia-Pacific region will also significantly improve all our lives, especially those of our children and grandchildren — female and male alike.

Ultimately, girls deserve to be loved and cared for and live in safety and freedom simply because they are people. They have that right, and countries have signed on to guaranteeing that right for all girls. We as adults have an obligation to assure them that right. And a world where all girls can be happy is simply a better world, period.

Zeenat’s story had a tragic outcome, but it has shaken Pakistan’s justice system into prosecuting her mother for her murder.

Rachana’s story has had a happy ending. Today, she runs her own NGO in Nepal to tackle child marriage, and has already helped dozens of teenage girls escape that fate.

The moral of both these stories (and others across Asia-Pacific and globally) is clear. Help all adolescent and teenage girls to be the women they can and want to be, so that the world can have the future we want.

Some of the major challenges adolescent girls face in Asia and the Pacific:

- An estimated 16.3 million adolescent girls are excluded from secondary education (UNESCO, 2013).

- Nearly half of the girls in South Asia and 1 in 5 girls in East Asia Pacific are married before 18 (UNICEF, 2014).

- 19% of young women in developing countries become pregnant before age 18. This figure is 22% in South Asia and 8% in East Asia Pacific (UNFPA, 2013).

- The cost of adolescent pregnancy as a share of gross domestic product could be as high as 30% over a girl’s lifetime (World Bank, 2011).

- Nearly a quarter of girls aged 15 to 19 reported being victims of violence after turning 15 (UNICEF, 2014).