A once in a lifetime chance to protect the world’s girls

Article Date

23 September 2014

Article Author

Lyric Thompson

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

As the 69th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) convenes this month, the year-long intergovernmental process to negotiate the world’s development framework for the next 15 years formally begins. The culmination of this process will be the “post-2015 development agenda,” a set of internationally agreed development objectives that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire next year.

There has been a great deal of debate about what the agenda should look like—whether goals should focus once more on poverty eradication, or instead on climate change and sustainability; whether to include again those goals that the world has not yet met, such as the only goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment (MDG3), or to start afresh with a completely different set of issues. The debate continues, but there is general consensus now that a balance between eradicating poverty and sustainable development is necessary, and that those challenges which have not been overcome (inequality being among them) should be given renewed attention.

For gender equality advocates, that means another, better, MDG 3. This one must go beyond simply “promoting” gender equality, it should commit to achieving it. It should include the focus on empowerment, but for women and girls. There is no demographic that was more sorely overlooked in the original MDGs date and whose rights and needs must be urgently addressed than adolescent girls. In the first round of MDGS, only girls’ education was specified as a target. But as we know, there is far more to gender equality than parity in educational enrolment. As females and as young people, adolescent girls face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerability; their rights are doubly at risk.

We have a once in a lifetime chance to focus on girls. The world is currently host to the largest youth generation in history. Every day, the world sees more headlines documenting the severe rights abuses girls suffer, from the attempted assassination of education advocate Malala Yousafzai to the alarming rates of early, child and forced marriage; from the abductions of Nigerian schoolgirls to the continued, widespread practice of female genital mutilation around the world. At the same time, an ever-expanding evidence base documents the tremendous benefit that healthy, happy, and educated girls provide for the social and economic development of their communities and countries. Simply put, the international community cannot afford to continue to ignore this critical demographic in development and human rights frameworks such as the post-2015 agenda.

Looking at global progress over the past 15 years, it is clear that the MDGs did catalyze tremendous attention and millions of development dollars around a few, concrete areas of priority concern. Extreme poverty, which affects women and girls disproportionately, has been reduced by half since 1990, for instance. In education, the gender gap has been eliminated for girls’ primary school enrollment in all regions.

That is pretty much where the good news ends for girls, however.

Even when girls are in school, there is the troubling question of education quality – what level of learning are girls experiencing, and whether they are able to enjoy a safe, fulfilling educational experience that is equipping them for healthy transitions to adulthood and to pursue careers they want. For the most part, the answer is no. Gender disparities at the secondary level and beyond remain, and this is where the trouble starts in earnest. Girls hit adolescence and drop out of school in higher numbers than boys. During adolescence, puberty hits, and we see more girls getting married early, becoming pregnant before their bodies are ready, and ultimately moving down a pathway toward a life domestic servitude. Chillingly, new research from the World Health Organization (WHO) tells us the primary cause of death for girls age 15-19 is suicide, followed closely by complications due to pregnancy and childbirth. As UN leaders come together to debate the next frontier of global development, these are crucial data points that can no longer be ignored.

Advocates are determined to ensure girls and their needs will no longer be excluded.

The women’s and youth major groups have been at the forefront of negotiations on previous frameworks—from the High Level Panel to the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development. For its part, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has been consistently calling for attention to girls’ rights and needs through our research and advocacy. This week we will host the UNGA launch of a report which documents key challenges girls face, giving voice to their recommendations for the future. More than 500 girls from 14 countries and diverse backgrounds, religions, and communities were interviewed about their deepest fears and greatest hopes for the future. And despite tremendous variation in geography and culture, girls were overwhelmingly united around key themes: They want to live lives free from the fear of violence, at home and in public. One girl from Liberia said, “I don’t like men playing with little girls in the bathroom.”  “I wish violence, muggings and exploitation would decrease,” said another girl, from Brazil. Girls reported awareness of discrimination, simply because they were born female.

They also discussed wanting to be able to attend quality schools in an environment in which they know will be safe, and wanting to have the relevant skills that will enable them to work and provide for their families. “I wish I could have a decent education and wish that no one could control my personality. I wish to go to a decent school and I wish teachers would not humiliate us and give us a proper education,” said one girl from Egypt. “If I’m educated, then if my son tries to kick me out of the house, I’ll be able to argue against him,” reported another girl, from India.

They want to choose if, when and whom to marry.

They want to be able to grow up to become physicians, police, and parliamentarians.

They want to count, and to be counted.

These demands have been put forward in the Girl Declaration  – a set of goals for girls, by girls, which speaks to their needs from health and education, to freedom from violence and child marriage, to opportunities to thrive and participate in the social, economic and political life of their communities and nations. ICRW and its partners will bring this research and the Girl Declaration to the UN General Assembly this week, calling on governments to heed the call not to negotiate away girls’ rights in the coming months, for which there is a real danger.

Comprehensive sexuality education for young people; protections against forced marriage; and bringing girls out of the household and into the public sphere are increasingly controversial recommendations on the UN stage, and there is a powerful coalition of conservative governments and opposition groups who are fighting it every step of the way. Last year the debate was primarily focused on anticipation of and then commenting on various draft frameworks, such as those mentioned above, and took place more-or-less in public view at the UN Head Quarters. The coming year will be a far more opaque process of inter-governmental and regional debates, the modalities of which have yet to be determined. As a result, there is tremendous room in the details of this for horse-trading, with economic and security interests of governments likely to take precedent over the human rights of girls, who as females and as young people have little to no voice, nor political sway, in the process.

It is a long and likely torturous road ahead, but an essential debate to be had. Hopefully the voices of girls and their advocates will rise above the fray and appeal to the good sense and better conscience of global leaders. Only time will tell.

The piece originally appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 on September 23, 2014.