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We must empower the girl to achieve a sustainable future

By Angela Muathe | October 17th 2021

Social and cultural factors increase the vulnerability of girls, making them more affected by poverty than boys. [Courtesy]

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 to declare October 11 the International Day of the Girl Child.

The resolution recognised that empowering of and investing in girls is critical for economic growth, and achievement of sustainable development, including eradicating extreme poverty, as well as the meaningful participation of girls in decisions that affect them.

This is key in breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence and in promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of girls’ rights. It is crucial in recognising that empowering girls requires their active participation in decision-making processes, and active support and engagement of their parents, legal guardians, families, and care providers, as well as boys and men and the wider community.

Indeed, girls’ rights are human rights. They have a right to live a dignified life during their formative years and as they grow into women. Girls who thrive have the potential to change the world. Empowering a girl today unleashes their potential and spurs them into a more equitable and prosperous future, one in which they solve the challenges that the world is facing such as disease, climate change and conflict, as they contribute towards achieving the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Commendable efforts have been made to empower the girl. Enrolment in school has increased, there is legislation and ongoing efforts to protect girls from harmful practices such as FGM, child labour and child marriages. Sexual and reproductive health services that meet the needs of girls are available.

Still, girls face enormous challenges. According to a report by Unicef, nearly one in four girls aged 15–19 globally is not in education, employment or training, compared to one in 10 boys. According to UNAIDS, every four minutes, three young women become infected with HIV. Further Unesco estimates that around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper secondary school age. 

Social and cultural factors increase the vulnerability of girls, making them more affected by poverty than boys. Both boys’ and girls’ education suffer if they are expected to work and bring income to the family, but girls usually have the added constraints of extra domestic duties. Parents arrange and marry off their underage daughters so that they receive dowry to get their family out of poverty. Often when families are unable to raise fees, they prioritise boys’ education and when the girls drop out of school at a tender age, they start to work to raise income for the family, sometimes to pay fees for their brothers. Still, girls miss school during their menstruation days due to lack of sanitary pads. 

Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation. When schools were closed for nine months to contain the spread of the coronavirus, many girls did not return to school. Some were married off by their families while others got pregnant and stayed at home to care for their babies. Traditionally, girls and women take care of sick family members and the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that girls had additional work to care for sick relatives. 

Empowering girls is critical for sustainable development. Girls and women who are educated are more informed about healthcare, nutrition, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier. They are more likely to get into formal employment and earn higher incomes. They are likely to get into leadership positions and to influence policy and decision making. This improves their quality of life, uplifts their households, and communities and contributes to countries’ economic growth. 

Empowering girls is essential for peace. Take an example of Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. Women play a critical role in conflict resolution. Evidence shows that when women are at the negotiating table, peace agreements are more likely to last 15 years or longer, yet, on average, women made up 13 per cent of negotiators, 6 per cent of mediators, and 6 per cent of signatories in major peace processes between 1992 and 2019. 

Empowering the girl child benefits society. Communities must frown on harmful practices that are detrimental to the girl, and protect her, empower her and bring down all gender stereotypes that present barriers in her way. 

All girls, including those living with disabilities, girls from ethnic minorities, girls displaced by emergencies or conflict and those living in extreme poverty must be supported to thrive. 

No girl should be left behind. 

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