October 11 was the third International Day of the Girl Child – a global initiative that was set up in 2012 to highlight the violation of the rights of girls and young women, throughout the world. The aim is to identify and promote girls’ rights, address gender inequalities between girls and boys and the different forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by girls and young women worldwide. This year’s theme is ‘Empowering adolescent girls: Ending the cycle of violence.’
It may be tempting to think that in the 21st century girls rights are more on a par with their male counterparts, but unfortunately the statistics make for grim reading. Millions of girls throughout the world don’t attend school, denying them the benefit of even a most basic education leaves them dependent on others, vulnerable and consigned to a life of poverty.
Many girls and young women experience healthcare issues and inequality that affect their wellbeing and quality of life. For example, in some countries access to healthcare during pregnancy and birth can be extremely limited or non-existent due to lack of education/support, financial issues or lack of access to healthcare. This results in higher mortality rates for both mother and infant – complications in pregnancy and birth are a leading cause of death in young women aged 15-19.
As well as health issues there are cultural issues that have a huge impact on girls’ physical and mental wellbeing. In some cultures girls are expected to do the household chores, in contrast to their male counterparts, leaving them less time for schooling and learning. Adolescent girls face the threat of early and forced marriage – one in nine girls is married by the age of 15. Brides who are barely out of childhood are more likely to suffer early pregnancy, maternal mortality, and transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Some marriages can take place as early as 11 years old in some regions, despite the fact this is illegal in most countries. Being married at such a young age means that most of these children will not complete their education, thus severely restricting their life choices – early pregnancy, with the associated risks, is the most likely outcome. Many young girls are denied even the most basic choices in life – lack of education and forced early marriage means in many cases that all choice has been removed.
In addition, every year, more than three million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting, which can lead to devastating physical and mental health problems. In the UK it is easy to think of this as an African or Middle Eastern problem but FGM affects 137,000 women in England and Wales alone.
Girls also face a significant threat from sexual violence, abuse and intimidation – often from within their homes and their communities. UN Women estimates that 150 million girls worldwide experience sexual violence each year, and nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls younger than 16 years of age. Many of these girls will have nowhere to turn to and must face this fear and intimidation on a regular basis. This is not limited to any one society it is unfortunately a global problem. But even simple measures can affect a woman’s safety – for example in many rural communities lack of basic facilities like toilets can leave girls vulnerable as they have to travel to remote fields to relieve themselves. Conflict also increases the risk of gender-based violence. Assaults on women and girls during times of conflict are all too familiar, even today our newspapers are full of stories about young women being forcibly separated from their families, held against their will and subjected to horrifying abuse. This is not just in warfare but trafficking of women is also a big issue.
Despite the evidence to show that many girls around the world face difficult circumstances with limited opportunities in health, education and escaping poverty, a lot of progress has been made. More girls than ever are enrolled in school. In some countries, girls are actually outperforming boys and graduating in greater numbers, which means more teachers, nurses, writers and lawyers etc to help move girls’ opportunities and rights forward for the next generation. Families and communities are recognizing their value as important and equal members of society. The benefit to family and society from education is quite profound.
A girl with secondary schooling is up to six times less likely to be married as a child than a girl with no education. When she herself has children, each extra year that she is educated reduces her children’s mortality risk by 5 to 10%. Let us also not forget that a mother is a child’s first teacher – an educated mother can pass on their knowledge to the next generation elevating literacy rates in the process. Investing in girls also increases economic growth. It has been estimated that the cost to 65 low- and middle-income and transitional countries that fail to offer girls the same secondary school opportunities as boys is a staggering $92 billion each year.
So we should value our girls – on a global scale. Girls and women make up over half the population of the planet. They are a vital resource for the future – if we take better care of their health needs, their education and protect them, then surely the whole of society will reap the benefits.