“If I was President, I’d feed the school kids. People are poor in my country; if girls had a free education, could eat breakfast and lunch, it would help a lot.”
“If I was president, I would survey my people about their problems. Then I would decide what to do.”
“If I was president, I would end child marriages.”
These were just of a few of the aspirations of three schoolgirls who visited the UN last week for meetings around the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Their participation sought to bring forward the voices and interests of girls worldwide to decision-makers who are currently finalizing the next development agenda.
The three girls came from Malawi, New Zealand, and South Sudan, they didn’t all want to be President… that was just a hypothetical. But each girl expressed the desire to grow up to be in a position to help her countrywomen and men, most especially girls and youth.
And they’re not alone. While these girls’ enthusiasm to improve the lives of their compatriots may seem unlikely, research conducted by the International Center for Research on Women showed that hundreds of girls around the world who were surveyed shared these aims. ICRW found, unequivocally, that girls want opportunities to thrive and to, in turn, help the next generation, “paying it forward” to their families, communities and nations.
The authors of the Beijing Platform for Action, that banner women’s rights agenda that turns twenty this year, and around which the 59th CSW this week was organized, seem to have understood and acknowledged what a pivotal role girls can - and should - play in bringing about a better tomorrow, as well as how necessary it is that they get the support they need, now, from world leaders.
The Platform for Action’s 12th Critical Area is dedicated to the rights and wellbeing of the Girl Child, and, tellingly, says:
The girl child of today is the woman of tomorrow. The
skills, ideas and energy of the girl child are vital for full attainment of the
goals of equality, development and peace.
For the girl child to develop her full potential she needs to be
nurtured in an enabling environment, where her spiritual, intellectual and
material needs for survival, protection and development are met and her equal
rights safeguarded. If women are to be equal partners with men, in every aspect
of life and development, now is the time to recognize the human dignity and
worth of the girl child and to ensure the full enjoyment of her human rights
and fundamental freedoms…
As a global community, however, we are far from realizing that ideal we called for 20 years ago - that which will enable girls to be the leaders and change agents we know they can be.
While we’ve made some progress when it comes to girls’ rights and opportunities, myriad challenges still plague their everyday lives. Female genital mutilation (FGM) impacts 125 million girls globally, and child, early and forced marriage ends childhood for 15 million girls a year. Adolescent girls 15-19 are one of the demographics for which HIV prevalence has actually increased in the last 20 years - accounting for two-thirds of new infections.
At a technical symposium on girls in crisis settings ICRW held in the lead up to CSW, a panel of experts pointed to doubling rates of child marriage among Syrian refugees, abductions by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS and the new number one killer of girls age 15-19 globally, suicide, as paramount among the challenges the girl child of 2015 still has to endure. And what we know about the lives of very young adolescent girls is still murky, with researchers pointing to the ethical conundrum of, for instance, obtaining “consent” to talk about rape from a girl as young as ten.
Given this grim reality that too many girls face worldwide, it’s therefore hard to believe it is the so-called “best time to be born female.”
Like so many foundational documents, it is eerie how well the Beijing Platform for Action catalogued so many of the rights issues that continue to be top of mind today: marriage, education, violence, labor and health, among others. The UN Women 20-year review of Beijing, released at the CSW, paints a picture not altogether changed for today’s girl child, citing forced marriage, early pregnancy, violence, child labor, exploitation and abuse and poor health outcomes as challenges that endure today.
At a CSW side event last week, “Adolescent Girls: The Promise of Beijing,” the African Union’s Goodwill Ambassador for Child Marriage, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, opened with these chilling words: “Why are we sanitizing a crime and calling it marriage? 39,000 girls are married as children, which means 39,000 men are stealing their innocence. We must use quotation marks around ’marriage’ when we talk of this crime.”
With all the horror stories and statistics, the bright spot at the CSW was the testimonies of girls themselves, who had traveled across the world to share stories and recommendations with UN leaders. It was their testimonials of overcoming enormous odds to make real and lasting change in their communities that gave life to the promise of Beijing. It can sound trite, or at least exaggerated, to repeat “girls are change agents” amongst the stony corridors of Capitol Hill and the United Nations---men in suits can be skeptical at best. But Emelin, a 15-year old girl from an indigenous Maya Mam community of Guatemala, spoke powerfully of her own efforts that prove just that.
Emelin got together with a small group of girls and petitioned the Mayor for safe spaces in their community where girls could go to discuss their rights and challenges, and devise recommendations for programs that would promote their education, safety, health and opportunity. Miraculously, he agreed.
“It was easy,” she said. “He had a daughter who was our age. We simply asked him why he didn’t care about her needs too.”
We know exactly what we need to do to ensure girls the world over can be as successful as Emelin at taking stock of the world around them and making it change for the better. The UN Women 20-year review of Beijing tells us:
“Improving girls’ wellbeing requires a comprehensive approach, including gender-responsive legislation and policies in all areas such as health, including sexual and reproductive health, nutrition, educational and economic outcomes across different stages through early childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and by addressing issues of fundamental safety and integrity of person, including prevention and protection from violence, harmful practices and discrimination.”
As we did twenty years ago, we know what we need to do. It’s high time we did it.