Last December, thanks to determined Canadian leadership, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. In creating a day to celebrate and acknowledge girls, the UN is putting its weight and influence behind global efforts to raise awareness of girls' rights and shine a spotlight on areas where those rights are routinely violated. The message is simple: "girls rights are human rights"; the sooner in life girls know their rights, the greater the chance they will be able to exercise them.
The statistics are grim, leaving little room for doubt on why an international day to focus on girls' issues is significant and necessary. Girls are three times more likely to be malnourished than boys, because in many parts of the world where food is scarce, girls eat last. Of the world's 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 per cent are girls. Sex selection feticide denies millions of girls the right to be born merely because they are girls.
Others are forced into early marriage and pregnancy. Medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide. Even here in Canada our concern over the emerging issues of "honour" killings and harmful cultural practices, and violence against young and adult women, confirm the serious need to address girls' rights on a global scale.
Besides troubling statistics, it has at the same time been proven that investing in girls boosts prosperity. By investing in girls we can support a generation of women -- mothers, workers, and leaders -- to improve the lives of everyone around them and to help break the cycle of poverty across communities and entire nations.
The Economist recently wrote, "Forget China, India and the Internet. Economic growth is driven by women." On this basis, we were compelled, and proud, to be part of a Canadian delegation who introduced the resolution for an "International Day of the Girl Child" to the UN General Assembly and argued passionately for its adoption.
All federal political parties have been enthusiastic in their support: the motion to put the resolution forward passed unanimously in the House of Commons in 2011 as a result of efforts by a grassroots movement convinced that "ordinary Canadians" can indeed bring about change on the world stage.
Fifteen thousand Canadian girls and boys, men and women signed an online petition. More than 600 joined the letter-writing campaign to advocate for the day. More than a dozen Canadian community organizations took up the cause.
Many of those who were most instrumental in promoting a Day of the Girl were young girls themselves. The tipping point came during the 55th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, where we had the great privilege of watching 12 girls from Plan International's "speakers bureau" -- including some from Canada -- make the case for paying greater attention to girls' rights.
These highly articulate young people spoke confidently to the high-level representatives in attendance about the impact of violence and discrimination on their lives and what must be done to end it.
While the girls' stories were heart-breaking, the girls themselves were inspiring.
It was extraordinary to watch them interacting with heads of state, hosting their own breakout session, helping draft language for a UN statement of accountability. We were proud and touched by their determination when they made a formal request for the Government of Canada to take international leadership and move the Day of the Girl proposal through the UN.
Such a day, they said, would make girls feel respected, recognized, and valued, where today they feel marginalized. They said it would give them a once-a-year opportunity to hold their governments to account -- to report progress on key issues and call for action. They said they would hold rallies and conferences to educate everyone -- especially girls -- on girls' rights. A UN-endorsed Day of the Girl, they said, could attract media attention and make their voices louder.
We are thrilled that these 12 girls were so determined, that the Canadian government was able to achieve so much momentum within the UN, and that the UN General Assembly agreed to the proposal.
Many girls who helped make this day possible are also thrilled, like Saba Ghahari, 19, one of the Canadian girl delegates who actively campaigned for the Day. "On each Day of the Girl," she says, "I hope we will see steps toward progress in our world. Steps away from discrimination, seclusion, and global poverty. I really do believe this day will be the key to positive change and equality."
We look forward to marking the very first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2012 and to our continued work with girls to inspire and shape real, tangible progress on issues that affect girls both in Canada and around the world.
The Honourable Rona Ambrose is the Minister for the Status of Women and Rosemary McCarney is the President and CEO of Plan Canada.