Who runs the world? Girls! Not at the UN CSW

At this year's UN Commission on the Status of Women, the empowerment of girls is getting more attention than ever before. But the outcome document must demand that girls get to speak for themselves.

Karin Attia
23 March 2017


This article is part of our coverage of the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women, New York, March 2017

Mariam CSW.jpg

Mariam, 13, speaks at Plan's, "Young Women’s Economic Empowerment in Fragile Contexts" event at UNCSW 61, March 16.

Over the course of the ongoing Commission on the Status of Women 61 (CSW), girls’ empowerment has been a major focus. This effort is significant because it hopefully indicates an end to the days of governments and civil society speaking on behalf of girls, and makes space for girls to speak up and represent themselves.  When girls are absent on panels, the lack of inclusion is emphatically noted. “Why don’t we have young women and girls on our panel? We made a commitment to have no panel without self-representation,” questioned Ms. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Goodwill Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage, African Union. However, despite this concerted effort, conversations in the girls’ empowerment sessions are marked by a strikingly rapid shift from how to put girls concerns and ideas at the forefront of programming, to how to include boys and men in this effort.

Why focus on girls?

The world is in the midst of a youth bulge, particularly in the poorest and most fragile states. People under 25 years old make up 43% of the world’s 7.3 billion population. There are 1.1 billion girls under 18. This matters because we now know that girls’ education is a key driver of reducing rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, child marriage and incidence of HIV/AIDS, and is strongly related to women’s capacities to engage in public decision-making. Poverty-reduction, peace, environmental stability, and even inclusive democratic governance hinge far more than was previously realized on keeping girls in school and delaying marriage and pregnancy.

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda enshrined in UNSC Resolution 1325, focuses on “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building.” The Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) Agenda enshrined in UNSC Resolution 2250 recognizes “that young women and men play an important and positive role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.” According to UNSC Resolution 2250, ‘youth’ is defined as persons aged 18-29. The WPS agenda focuses on women, not adolescent girls.  Much of the YPS agenda is dominated by boys and young men, not necessarily by girls. There is a failure to involve girls in these agendas. This gap is precisely why it is essential to highlight girls’ empowerment programming and best practices at CSW.


The "Pathways to Economic Justice for Adolescent Girls and Young Women" event sponsored by the Governments of Zambia, Nepal and Colombia at UNCSW 61, March 20th

Girls Programming

At the heart of girls’ empowerment programming is the need to create a safe space free of harassment for investing in skills. Harassment was a theme that came up repeatedly. At an event titled, “It Starts with Safety: Adding Girls to the Global Agenda” sponsored by the International Council of Jewish Women, UNICEF and Together for Girls, several members of the audience and panel came forward with their experiences of harassment and as survivors of sexual violence, showcasing the need to create spaces to listen to girls and explaining why safety is so important for girls’ empowerment. In light of much of the harassment and sexual violence plaguing girls in Lagos, Nigeria, Olaoluwa Abagun, a panelist and Founder of the Girl Pride Circle, launched the Safe Kicks Initiative: Adolescent Girls Against Sexual Violence. This initiative is an empowerment program that involves taekwondo classes for adolescent girls. According to Abagun, “building self-confidence for girls is important to name and shame perpetrators of sexual violence. We want them to be able to speak up and this is exactly what martial arts does for them!”

At the “Safer Cities-Creating an Enabling Environment for Girls’ Economic Empowerment” event organized by Plan International, two 13 year old girls from Egypt, Hebatallah and Mariam, participants in the Safer Cities for Girls Programme in Cairo, expressed the importance in creating safe environments. When asked why girls don’t feel safe in their community, Hebatallah said that “lack of light in the street, a garbage problem and harassment on the streets” were big obstacles and that in fact some girls stopped going to school because of them. The Safer Cities for Girls Programme aims to close existing gaps between urban programming targeting either ‘youth’ or ‘women’ by focusing on adolescent girls who are frequently the most vulnerable and excluded population in a city. According to Mariam, every member in the community has their own role to play in addressing these issues. Hebatallah continued, “When we present our issues and make our recommendations, they are not only to the government. Some issues are presented to us, so we have to take ownership over them, others to the community to deal with and third for government issues. I believe harassment issue takes entire community to support us and specifically boys and men.”

The headquarters of the United Nations, New York city, where the UNCSW takes place annually.

According to Liinu Diaz Rämö, a Project Manager of Flickaplattformen (The Girl Child Platform), a Swedish organization, and panelist at the “Empowering Young Women to Become Leaders in Localizing SDGs” event, even though Sweden is recognized as a leader for gender equality, girls’ issues and rights are not well addressed in Sweden. The Girl Child Platform creates digital spaces for girls to talk about their challenges and issues, such as SRHR and online harassment, while also making connections between girls and policymakers. “As soon as you ask them [adolescent girls], there is so much commitment, so many ideas, and solutions. Just start asking them what do they want to do, how do they want to do it…Giving them the feeling of expertise, empowering recognition that they are the experts on these issues, will give you very engaged perspectives.”

Avoiding Misandry

Without fail, the question of how to engage with boys and men crept into every event, to the point of being a highlight of any concluding comments.  Engaging boys and men in achieving gender equality has become a major preoccupation, as seen in UN Women’s flagship campaign: HeForShe, as well as The MenEngage Alliance, and Promundo’s ‘be a model man’ campaign. However, when there is so little policy space dedicated to girls, does the conversation really need to shift over to boys and men so quickly? Is there no space for girls’ empowerment without assuaging the anxieties of boys and men? Both Liinu Diaz Rämö and Sarah Engebretsen, Associate and Program Manager at the Population Council, stressed that engaging with men and boys is one of the first questions they receive when discussing adolescent girls research and programs at events and panels.


A poster from the UN Women campaign He For She.

No decisions about us, without us

Despite the efforts in highlighting girls’ empowerment programs, and even bringing girls and young women forward to discuss their experiences participating in these types of programs, CSW ultimately fell short in the basic procedure for giving voice to girls: passing the mic. Liinu Diaz Rämö emphatically pleaded, “An important note for CSW, please bring young people to the decision tables, instead of just being a youth representative.” Don’t just highlight girls, engage them.

The current draft outcome document “recognize[s] girls’ autonomy and decision-making in all aspects of their lives and also that the empowerment of and investment in women and girls, as well as their meaningful participation in all decisions that affect them, are key factors in breaking the cycle of gender inequality and discrimination, violence and poverty...” Recognition is important, but there is a marked silence on methods for doing so, such as for instance quotas. The current outcome document misses the opportunity to demand more; to demand that whenever girls’ empowerment or girls’ programming is mentioned, girls must be consulted and speak for themselves.

Tshidi Likate, a 19-year-old Save the Children South Africa’s Girl Champion, states, “You never know how important you are until you are recognized.” Girls will be empowered and know their role and importance at CSW once their involvement on panels, at high-level events, at meetings and at decision tables is no longer a novel concept but an expectation. 

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