An unscripted and unstoppable force for change

This October 11th, 2019 International Day of the Girl is celebrated under the tagline “Girl Force – Unscripted and Unstoppable”.

 It is a fitting tribute to the tenacity of girls like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, Autumn Peltier in Canada or Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan – change makers with the courage and lucidity to face the challenges of the next decade and advocate both in their own communities and at global level. They speak the truth to those in power on issues ranging from climate change to access to clean water and the right of girls to go to schools. These girls are but a few examples of courage among the millions of girls around the world who resist against gender discrimination at school, online, in their homes and in their workplaces daily. 

In Canada, we have seen substantial progress in gender equality over the last century:  in the fight against sexual and gender-based violence; in the increase of economic opportunities for girls and women and in the increased representation of women in political leadership. Much work still lies ahead, as highlighted by the June 2019 Final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which showed important omissions in the protection of rights for indigenous women and girls in Canada.

The “glass ceiling”, lack of representation of women in corporate leadership and wage gap are other gender inequalities that require constant attention. Progress continues to be made today through investments such as the Government of Canada’s ‘Women’s Shelters Canada’; through programs aiming to increase the number of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); and through the appointment in 2015 of the first gender-balanced Cabinet.

Millions of adolescent girls around the world grow up in stark contrast from the gender equality and advancement in human rights we see here in Canada. While we see adolescence as a “second window of opportunity” to address child poverty and to foster adolescent growth and development, adolescent girls in developing context are denied this opportunity. Their experiences often remain rooted in poverty, gender inequality and discriminatory gender and social norms that threaten or violate their rights, including their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and the realisation of their full potential.

These differences are clearly visible for example, in the significantly higher rates of pregnancy for adolescent girls living in poverty in the global South. Data released by the World Health Organisation in 2018 revealed that:

  • Approximately 23 million girls aged 15-19 years in developing regions have unmet needs for modern contraception and;
  • Nearly 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 years and 2.5 million girls under 16 years give birth each year in developing regions with highest numbers recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Adolescent girls in poor households are also more likely than adolescent boys to dropout of school to take on adult responsibilities and/or to engage in unpaid labour within poor households. 

The reasons for these alarming statistics vary widely and are always linked to the context in these regions, influenced by poverty, conflicts and natural disasters among other factors.  However, the negative social and gender norms that are prevalent in several developing contexts can also result in adolescent girls not having the power to make decisions directly linked to their sexual health and personal wellbeing, such as the freedom of proactively seeking medical advice on contraception. These prevailing negative social and gender norms may also pressure and/or force adolescent girls into early marriage and unplanned parenthood.

Beyond the influence of social norms, adolescent girls are often also exposed to nutritional deprivation, gender-based violence and poor economic outcomes. In particular, in times of disaster and conflict their vulnerability to gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and unwanted pregnancy is increased.

Despite these circumstances, adolescent girls everywhere are standing up for their rights, using their voice, sharing their stories and creating change in their communities. Save the Children supports this change by partnering with local youth-led organizations, training and encouraging these young girls to create change in their communities. In Northern Nigeria for example, Save the Children (with the support of the Government of Canada) is helping 100,000 married and unmarried adolescent girls aged 10-19 years to make informed choices about their sexual reproductive health and rights. The project also tries to transform harmful masculine behaviours by engaging adolescent boys and men (husbands of married girls) and faith leaders. This project has already resulted in an increased support for contraceptive use and an increased belief in girls’ education among other changes.

Gender equality and girls rights can progress through progressive systemic changes made in the communities. Ultimately, this unstoppable force for change should be a transformative one, inclusive of girls, boys, men and women to create sustainable change at individual, community and systemic level.

As Canadians, it is important to realize and remember that our gender equality and girls’ rights still are a privilege compared to many others, that a constant effort is needed to help adolescent girls in these regions enjoy the same human rights. International Day of the Girl is every day. Only through your partnership and a sustainable effort will we advance gender equality and human rights for girls and women everywhere.

By: Samiera Zafar, Save the Children’s Policy & Advocacy Advisor