Invest in girls, break the cycle of poverty

Article Date

15 July 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

This week, the the United Nations Open Working Group on Sustainable Development is meeting at UN Headquarters in New York to debate a draft framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight goals designed to reduce poverty by tackling critical issues faced by vulnerable populations, including  promoting gender equality, improving maternal health, increasing access to education, and ramping up efforts to improve food security. The MDGs kicked off in 2000 and were designed to conclude in 2015. With just one year to go before the Millennium Charter expires and a new set of goals will be adopted, the first step is to determine what progress has been made over the last 15 years, and the second is to determine what makes sense to aspire to achieve in the next.

To that end, the Secretary General last week issued a 2014 report on the global progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. This latest report sheds light on how far the global community has come – and just how far we have yet to go – to achieve these important goals. The good news is that we’ve made some significant progress in improving the lives of women and girls around the world.  Extreme poverty, which affects women and girls disproportionately, has been reduced by half since 1990. In all regions, we’ve eliminated the gender gap for girls’ primary school enrollment. And more women are participating in political life around the world than ever. But this report doesn’t show us the full picture for women and girls; for example, not all of the data is disaggregated by sex, so we’re not sure if eradicating poverty by half means that women have had an equal share in this progress.

While we’ve made great strides forward in improving the lives of women and girls, we’re still incredibly far from being able to say we’ve achieved—or are likely to—MDG 3 on gender equality. Though the goal is broad—“Promote gender equality and empower women” —-the specific target areas against which progress is measured focus solely on girls’ education. Though progress at the primary level is laudable, gender disparities at the secondary level and beyond remain. This also says little about school quality—what level of learning are girls experiencing, and are they able to enjoy a safe, fulfilling educational experience that is equipping them for later transitions to adulthood and to pursue careers they want? Other areas that are tracked in this year’s progress report show wide gaps remaining on women’s access to the labor market and availability of family leave to keep them there. Areas that aren’t measured at all but are most certainly holding women back include rampant violence, which still affects one in three women globally, or the inability of more than two hundred million women who currently want access to family planning to obtain it. And perhaps the most important missing factor in the calculus for what needs to be done to end poverty and advance equality globally? Adolescent girls.

At a time of the largest youth generation in history, when an ever-expanding evidence base documents challenges for girls and their centrality to the success of development efforts, we cannot afford to continue to ignore this critical demographic in development and human rights frameworks. As females and as young people, girls face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerability—their rights are doubly at risk. We can’t stand for that. Practices like female genital mutilation, which affects millions of girls, violate girls’ rights and leave many at risk of infection and complications from childbirth for years to come. Child, early and forced marriage robs girls of their rightful agency to choose if, when and whom to marry and spells disastrous implications for their health and wellbeing.

ICRW has been consistently calling for attention to girls’ rights and  needs throughout the process of determining what the next set of development goals should be. Recently, we teamed up with the Nike Foundation and the research firm 2CV to publish a report documenting key challenges girls face and giving voice to their recommendations for the future. Girls from diverse backgrounds, religions, and communities told us they want to live lives free from the fear of violence, at home and in public. They don’t want to be discriminated against, simply because they were born female. They want to be able to attend quality schools in an environment they know will be safe, and they want to have the relevant skills that will enable them to work and provide for their families. We heard loud and clear that adolescent girls around the world are ready to roll up their sleeves to tackle the challenges they view have been holding their communities back for far too long.

So, we’ve joined together with our partners and girls around the world in calling for a set of goals that will include girls’ rights and empowerment as a core part of the agenda. We’re calling it the Girl Declaration—a set of goals for girls, by girls, which speak 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.

Right now, government representatives from around the world who are taking part in the Open Working Group meetings are tasked with presenting a framework for the post-2015 development agenda that will take the ball forward from the MDGs and advance a sustainable, poverty-free future.We are at a pivotal moment. The Open Working Group’s draft framework doesn’t go far enough for girls. We’ve reviewed it and made the following recommendations to improve with girls’ needs in mind. Ignoring adolescent girls needs and priorities, as well as the challenges they face, will leave tens of millions of people around the world unable to confront the barriers that help perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Let’s break that cycle by investing in girls.