"Invest in adolescents. We’re not only the future, we’re the present, and we deserve to be happy." Twelve year old Stephanie Mendez Asturias, from Guatemala, speaking at the UN ahead of International Day of the Girl Child.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings last week, an unlikely group of diplomats, advocates, an actress and a number of schoolgirls ranging in age from 12-19 gathered in a crowded room at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) headquarters. They were there to discuss how the 2030 Agenda addresses - or fails to address - the rights and needs of adolescent girls.
Twelve year old Stephanie Mendez Asturias speaking at the UN last week. Photo: Basia Ambroziak/ICRW.
These goals, which replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), prioritize some of the biggest challenges facing adolescent girls around the world today: gender-based violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation, access to secondary schooling and sexual and reproductive health, to name just a few. The meeting had great significance, given that the MDGs virtually excluded girls’ rights, providing barely a mention of their needs.
As she often does - and as UN officials so rarely do - Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA, opened the event by strongly condemning the prevailing social norms and practices that imprison girls and hold them back from reaching their full potential in far too many communities worldwide:
Globally, our double standards further beleaguer our progress: Young women are too young to have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, yet old enough to be married? Old enough to be pregnant, yet not old enough to be trusted with access to sexuality education or contraceptives? Old enough to catch a [sexually-transmitted infection] but not old enough to seek and receive treatment for it? Too young to vote, yet old enough to be a parent?”
Far too often, girls have little agency in choosing their own paths, whether it be what type of education they pursue, or with whom and when to pursue a sexual relationship. Activist and author Ashley Judd built further on the theme of sexual violence against girls, with a powerful personal testimony of abuse, but also of resilience in the journey “from hurting, to healing to helping.”
I grew up very well loved, but alas in a family system that for many reasons did not work terribly well and thus my voice was minimized and, at times, outright squashed…I experienced my first sexual abuse that I remember at the age of about six. I was in the second grade, and I went to some young people and I said, “Hey this just happened,” and, God love ’em, they said “Oh no it didn’t. He’s a nice old man that’s not what he meant.” Then I went to my uncle and I tried really hard to tell him my story but my voice was already gone.
She underscored the importance of these rights going beyond norms and beliefs, acknowledging that rights must be enshrined and championed by global leaders: “My favorite human rights document is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and one of the main reasons I love it is that it talks about acknowledging the growing capacity of the child, inclusion, and the child’s voice.”
Embracing the importance of girls’ voices, Ms. Judd then opened the floor to a panel of girl activists hailing from Africa, Latin America and Europe, all of whom spoke with a wisdom that belied their years. Each girl spoke about issues that had inspired her to speak out in support of girls’ rights in their home communities. And despite the fact that these girls inhabit different corner of the earth, the challenges they face are remarkably familiar..
Jimena, a twelve year-old advocate from Guatemala who began campaigning for girls’ right to live free of violence from the early age of eight, spoke through a translator - but with obvious passion - about what she sees as the most pressing issue girls face in her community: early pregnancy. Her own mother, Jimena said, had given birth to her when she was only a girl herself, which Jimena knew had caused her to struggle to survive and provide for her family. She is the inspiration that drives Jimena to continue to advocate for the information and services girls in her home community need to avoid the same face. “Invest in adolescents,” Jimena pleaded, “We’re not only the future, we’re the present, and we deserve to be happy.”
Preslava, a nineteen year-old advocate from Bulgaria spoke about when she realized not another could pass, before getting involved in advocating on important issues girls in her community faced. During a health class, her teacher told the class to be careful, because HIV could be contracted from a mosquito. “That’s the moment I realized that everyone doesn’t know about these issues. I have a younger sister, and I want her to have this information,” said Preslava.
Elizabeth, a nineteen year-old advocate from Nigeria, spoke about working with peers to help them understand the rights that they have, and that they should be empowered to exercise them. She reflected on the importance of understanding that gender equality is not a zero-sum game, stressing that if we do all the work in the world to empower girls but in so doing take away the rights of boys, this is just as problematic as the situation we encounter today: “The only way we can achieve gender equality is when girls realize they have rights and boys realize they have rights and we both respect each other’s rights.”
So how do we get there?
The morning’s policy discussion at UNFPA focused on how the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda provide the initial framework upon which future progress can be built. As it was in the MDGs, gender equality is a standalone goal in the 2030 Agenda. However, this time the framework explicitly articulates an aim to “achieve,” not just “promote,” gender equality, as well as an outright acknowledgement that girls’ rights and empowerment are an equally important component of gender equality alongside women’s rights.
Importantly, the issue-specific targets under Goal 5, the gender equality goal, also reinforce the importance of girls’ rights:
• Target 5.2 focuses on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls
• Target 5.3 charges the international community to end child marriage and female genital mutilation
• Target 5.7 deals with economic rights, including inheritance rights for girls
• Target 5.9 calls for stronger policies and enforceable legislation that promote gender equality and empower women and girls
The good news doesn’t stop with only the gender goal. Girls are referenced eleven times across the Agenda’s 17 goals, including in targets to end poverty (Goal 1), and address nutrition (Goal 2), health (Goal 3), education (Goal 4), gender equality (Goal 5), water and sanitation (Goal 6), economic growth (Goal 8), inequality (Goal 10), safe cities (Goal 11), climate change (Goal 13), and peaceful and inclusive societies (Goal 16).
The Agenda specifically calls on the global community to address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls (Goal 2), to ensure inclusive and equitable education for girls and boys (Goal 4), and to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, calling for particular attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations (Goal 6).
A full analysis of how girls fared in the 2030 Agenda can be found here; an analysis of how the goals stack up against the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action ( spoiler alert: they don’t!) is also a good read.
Rounding out the discussion, Ambassador Catherine M. Russell, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, closed the event, underscoring the importance not only of putting resources towards breaking down barriers that prevent girls from succeeding, but also about how important it is to take the time to listen to girls: “Our work is better, it’s more informed, and it’s more inspired when we hear from these adolescent girls.” She acknowledged that with a grand total of seventeen goals, which are all competing for funding, it will be up to advocates to ensure that adolescent girls get their fair share of global resources.
With the energy and commitment represented in that room last week, they just might get it.