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Empowered Girls Become Empowered Women

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I firmly believe that the greatest and most urgent moral challenge the world faces is gender inequality, and specifically discrimination against girls. I believe this because statistics and research tells us that in many parts of the world, and in some of the world's poorest countries, girls face unique barriers to survival and development -- like access to food or an education -- simply because they are young and female. I believe this because, closer to home here in Canada, we've seen disturbing stories about girls being bullied and other forms of violence and discrimination against young women.

I also believe this because of what I have seen and heard from girls in different parts of the world I've visited in the past few weeks.

In India, I met with street children, including young girls, living on railway platforms. A Plan colleague there told me that if we don't get to these rural refugees from poverty within eight days of arrival in a city, they'll be victims of trafficking.

In New York, I met with young girl delegates at this year's United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. These girls shared candid stories about their lives and the lives of other girls they knew.

Maryam, age 15 and from Pakistan, a country where the average age at which girls are married is 15 or 16, brought statistics to life in recounting the story of a friend married at age 12 to a 32-year-old man. Praveen (not her real name) was a disappointment to her husband's family, more interested in playing with toys than in her husband, eating the tomatoes she was meant to be cooking. After three months, her husband divorced her and she was sent back to live with her parents. Now her parents feel she is a burden and want to marry her away again as soon as possible. She weeps and remains sad.

I also heard the story of 13-year-old Humu in Sierra Leone, married off to a 47-year-old. She explained that in poor families in her country, a young girl is regarded as an economic burden, and early marriage perceived as benefitting both the child and her family financially and socially. Pregnant after just a few months, with pre-natal care limited to untrained traditional birth attendants, Humu developed a disease called fistula -- common in very young pregnant girls -- and lost the baby. She too was divorced by her husband because of the stigma fistula carries in that community.

The girls I met in the Middle East were somewhat more optimistic, hopeful that the tremendous changes in their country will eventually benefit them, but still suffering from terrible discrimination.

Last December, the United Nations announced that beginning in 2012, October 11 will be designated the International Day of the Girl Child. A new day to bring focus and attention on girls' rights and the ways in which those rights are violated; to call the global community to action in addressing the unique challenges and barriers that girls around the world face because they are young and female; and to affirm the power and potential girls have to break the cycle of poverty in their families, communities, and nations.

On March 8 of this year, the 101st International Women's Day, I stood proudly with the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Canadian Minister for the Status of Women, and 500 Toronto girls in grades three through six as we gathered at a Toronto District School Board event to recognize and celebrate the power and potential of women and young girls worldwide. At this event, I also spoke about why we need a day for girls -- why recognizing girls as a distinct and particularly vulnerable group is important, and about how empowered girls become empowered women.

By investing in girls- -- and by that I mean focusing our collective will, attention, and resources on their survival and development -- we can we support a generation of empowered women, mothers, workers and leaders who will improve the lives of everyone around them.

If we invest in girls, especially in their education, we can literally transform lives. An educated girl will be more likely to marry later and have fewer, healthier children. She will have a better chance to stay healthy herself and remain alive. For each year that a girl stays in school, her income will rise by 15 per cent. With the opportunity to earn a living, she will pull herself out of poverty, and bring her family along with her. An educated girl will grow up to gain her rightful place in society and be a force for change.

These are among many reasons why girls need a day of their own!

This year, Plan's focus is on promoting girls' rights to a minimum of nine years of education. That's still a distant dream for so many, but with increasing global awareness and action we can make that dream a reality. On 10.11.12, I look forward to joining girls around the world in marking the first International Day of the Girl. I hope you will mark that date in your calendar too and join me in helping girls change the world!

2012-04-20-Ambrose1.jpg Close to 500 Toronto girls hold up signs to honour a woman who has made a difference in their lives.The Honourable Rona Ambrose, Canadian Minister for the Status of Women, Rosemary McCarney, President and CEO of Plan Canada, and Dr. Chris Spence, Director of Education for TDSB, were on hand for a TDSB event to celebrate girls and women on International Women's Day. Photo credit: Plan Canada.

2012-04-20-Ambrose2.jpg A group of young Toronto girls present the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Canadian Minister for the Status of Women, with a signed banner of congratulations for making the new UN day -- the International Day of the Girl -- a reality. Minister Ambrose, Rosemary McCarney, President and CEO of Plan Canada, and Dr. Chris Spence, Director of Education for TDSB, were on hand for a TDSB event to celebrate girls and women on International Women's Day. Photo credit: Plan Canada.