2018 was called “The Year of the Woman” after a series of historic firsts and long-overdue breakthroughs.
- A record 117 women were elected or appointed to Congress in midterm elections in November.
- Ireland voted to repeal one of the world’s most restrictive abortion bans. Ethiopia appointed its first female president.
- And women in Saudi Arabia were permitted to drive legally.
However, progress for adolescent girls has not kept pace, and COVID-19 has reinforced many of these gaps. Even though we’ve made progress in the last two decades to ensure every girl is able to grow and develop in good health, there is much still to do.
Twenty-five years ago, some 30,000 women and men from nearly 200 countries arrived in Beijing, China, for the Fourth World Conference on Women, determined to recognize women’s rights as human rights.
The conference culminated in the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: the most comprehensive policy agenda for gender equality and the rights of not only women, but also girls. It calls for a world where every girl and woman can realize all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to attend and complete school, to choose when and whom she marries, and to earn equal pay for equal work.
Women have pressed this agenda forward, leading global movements on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health rights to equal pay. But 25 years later, discrimination and limiting stereotypes remain rampant. Girls’ life expectancy has extended by eight years, yet for many the quality of that life is still far from what was envisioned. Girls have the right to expect more.
Girls issues: Facts, stats and alarming practices
Twelve million girls are married before age 18 each year. One in five girls globally has experienced sexual violence. And more than 130 million girls are not in school.
While millions of girls aren’t able to go to school, millions more are fighting to stay there. As a girl grows older, getting an education becomes even harder. Her family must be able to afford and be willing to pay school fees. Yet, worldwide, girls ages 5 to 14 spend 160 million more hours (40 percent more) on household chores, and collecting water and firewood than boys of the same age.
Primary education provides children with the foundation for a lifetime of learning, while secondary education equips them with the knowledge and skills they need to become empowered and engaged adults.
The benefits of secondary education for girls are significant. Compared to girls with only a primary education, girls with secondary education are:
- Less likely to marry, contract HIV/AIDS, become pregnant as adolescents
- More likely to contribute to their country’s overall development
- And if they become educated mothers, they are more likely to immunize their children and invest in their education
Instead of attending class, girls and women around the world spend 200 million hours each day, which is a colossal waste of their valuable time. 200 million hours is 8.3 million days, or over 22,800 years. This simple act is preventing them from living a life of basic meaning and worth.
Today, no matter where a girl lives, she is at risk of encountering violence in every space she occupies–in the classroom, home and community. 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence.
Men in 18 countries even have the right to legally prevent their wives from working. And some jobs, such as domestic work, are entirely unpaid. “The global value of this unpaid care work each year is estimated at $10.8 trillion—more than three times the size of the global tech industry,” according to Oxfam.
And two widespread harmful practices toward females are still prevalant; genital mutilation and child marriage.
When we solve problems that girls have . . .
- 750 million women and girls alive today have been married before the age of 18 = 23 girls every minute, according to Girls Not Brides.
- Over 200 million girls have undergone female genital cutting, the United Nations says.
In 2011, United Nations General Assembly declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to focus on the need to address challenges girls face, promote empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.
This October day helps raise awareness of what’s likely to happen when those problems are solved: Educating girls helps reduce the rate of child marriage and disease, and strengthens the economy by helping them gain access to higher paying jobs.
My favorite video on the immense impact of investing in girls is The Girl Effect from Nike.
Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and, therefore, also half of its potential. Empowering women and girls and promoting gender equality is crucial to accelerating peace and sustainable development.
Women hold the greatest potential for change in their communities. Yet, women and girls are disproportionately affected by violence and prejudices that limit their opportunities and prevent them from lifting themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty.
Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right, but it also has a multiplier effect across all other development areas. And yet many global development plans do not include or consider girls, and their issues become “invisible.”
If effectively supported during their adolescent years, girls have the potential to change the world–both as the empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, mothers, entrepreneurs, mentors, household heads, and political leaders.
An investment in the power of adolescent girls upholds their rights today and promises a more equitable and prosperous future, one in which half of humanity is an equal partner in solving the problems of climate change, political conflict, economic growth, disease prevention, and global sustainability.
Generations of progress for women and girls could be lost due to the pandemic
That’s what the United Nations Chief António Guterres has warned.
This year’s International Day of the Girl was marked by events all over the world, from India to Kenya to Washington to Paris, highlighting the disproportionate and devastating socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on women and girls globally. Guterres called for direct attention to prevent us from losing “years, even generations” worth of progress on women’s empowerment because of the pandemic.
Women play a vital role as healthcare workers, essential staff, teachers and carers, helping millions globally, both within and outside their homes. COVID-19 has thrown them into financial insecurity, without regular income or effective social safety nets.
“The pandemic has exposed the extent of its impact on physical and mental health, education and labour force participation”, said Guterres. He made this statement amid disturbing reports from around the world of skyrocketing gender-based violence, “as many women are effectively confined with their abusers, while resources and support services are redirected.”
In humanitarian emergencies, gender-based violence often increases, subjecting girls to sexual and physical violence, child marriage, exploitation and trafficking. Emerging data shows that since the outbreak of the pandemic, violence against women and girls, and particularly domestic violence, has intensified.
“The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the considerable hurdles women face in achieving their rights and fulfilling their potential. Without a concerned response, we risk losing a generation or more of gains,” he cautioned.
In 2020, a gender-equitable world is still a long way off. The next steps for change must meaningfully include girls as decision-makers and designers of the solutions to the challenges and opportunities they face every day.
The world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under age 18, who are poised to become the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers of the world. It will take every one of us—advocates, elected officials, international leaders—standing in solidarity to end gender inequality and empower women across the globe.
Highlight of The Week: Malala Fund works to break down barriers
The Malala Fund is working for a world where every girl can lead and learn. With more than 130 million girls out of school today, the fund is tirelessly championing every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality education, even in remote areas. They want to break down barriers that hold girls back, creating a more equal world.
Every day, girls around the world are fighting for their freedom. Join them and raise your voice, sharing what #freedomforgirls means to you.
Challenge of The Week: Support, advocate and decide to help girls and women
There are plenty of community-based initiatives working to solve these issues and more for girls. Please give your time, energy and dollars to make change happen.
- Help organizations leading efforts towards positive social change, including gender equality, in their communities and nations.
- Sponsor a girl in Secondary School. I’ve worked for 10 years to help build a secondary school in Tanzania for vulnerable girls that would not otherwise be able to attend school. Consider sponsoring a girl directly: https://www.nurturingmindsinafrica.org
- Vote For Her: Use your voice and your vote in the midterm elections to elect champions for women and girls globally.
- Participate in youth-led digital activation to raise the diversity of girls’ voices and their vision for a reimagined future. For example, join the social media campaign #TheGirlEffect inspiring people across the globe to share stories of defiant resistance
- Sign The Open Letter and stand up to end online harassment and abuse on your social media platforms #FreeToBeOnline.
— Kendall Webb, Founder and Executive Director