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Making Sure Girls Matter Every Day of the Year is Paramount

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On October 11, 2012 the world marked the first-ever International Day of the Girl.

It's a day that we at Plan Canada, along with thousands of Canadian leaders and supporters, had pushed and worked towards for two years before the day was finally declared by the United Nations in December 2011. Getting this day was truly a remarkable Canadian effort and success.

Through our Because I am a Girl initiative, we undertook the push for a Day of the Girl to focus global attention on ending gender discrimination, to promote the human rights of girls and address barriers to survival and development that girls face simply because they are young and female, and to champion the power of girls to change the world.

While this historic day was the result of Canadian leadership, October 11 also became an opportunity and collective space for everyone around the world to step into, make their own, and celebrate.

And celebrate the world did in many ways.

Twitter and Facebook came alive with messages from across the world about the significance of the day -- from passionate and outspoken young girls in Canada to Canadian and international celebrities and leaders including Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Melinda Gates, Canadian Olympic Champion Jenn Heil, Hilary Clinton, and Marcia Cross.

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Across the world iconic monuments like Toronto's CN Tower, Ottawa's Parliament Hill, the London Eye, the Pyramids of Egypt, and New York's Empire State Building were lit up in pink to mark the day.

There were simple celebrations in rural villages, glitzy galas in urban centres, and the launch of scholarly research reports at the UN. In Ecuador, for example, young girls were invited to speak with members of their National Assembly and decided to turn the space pink with balloons while sharing about their challenges and aspirations.

In New York, I watched the Empire State Building turn pink and joined a gathering at the New York Public Library attended by American supporters of Plan. There, we had the opportunity to hear eloquent young girls from various countries speak passionately about what it meant to have a day focused on issues that matter to them.

2012-10-23-LearningforLife.jpg As the day got underway, I also attended the UN launch of a report on which Plan collaborated with UNICEF, focused on harmful practices affecting girls, such as early marriage. Then I joined Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile; current UN Women Executive Director) to launch Plan's 2012 State of the World's Girls Report, with this year's theme of Learning for Life.

In Toronto, hundreds of people -- young and old and representing the rich and diverse cultural fabric of the city -- came out for our Day of the Girl festivities and concert with international recording artist, and newest Because I am a Girl Celebrated Ambassador, Alyssa Reid. While at the Toronto celebration, many people also took time to "raise their hands" in support of girls' education and empowerment.

The celebration was bittersweet, though, given it occurred against the backdrop of worldwide shock and headlines concerning 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a young activist from Pakistan, shot in the head by a Taliban member because of her ongoing work and advocacy to ensure more girls get to go to school.

For me, the horror of Malala's story goes beyond the shooting itself because it serves as a brutal reminder of the millions of girls around the world -- not only those in Pakistan -- who are not currently in school because of their gender, and who will never make news headlines.

Our previous research showed that approximately 75 million girls of school age worldwide are not attending school. More specifically, this year's report, Learning for Life, finds that only 74 per cent of girls between the ages of 11 and 15 (or 39 million worldwide) are in school - compared to 83 per cent of boys. As the report highlights, many girls in developing countries are held back in their education by poverty, the burden of household and domestic chores and early marriage - which normally occurs by the age of 15. Girls are also more likely to experience violence and sexual abuse both in the classroom and on the way to school.

This report also emphasizes that girls need at least nine years of quality primary and secondary education to develop, succeed, and raise themselves and everyone around them out of poverty.

This latest research confirms that as much as this is a time to celebrate "girl power," it is also a time to lean in, push forward, and fight harder for the futures of millions of girls. It is a time to challenge existing systems and work together with fellow advocates, families, communities, governments, and girls themselves to make girls' education a top and paramount priority on the global agenda. The time is now, not only on international days, but every day of the year.

Photos courtesy Plan Canada