10/09/2015 12:30 EDT | Updated 10/09/2016 05:12 EDT

Achieving Girls' Rights Will Take More Than Removing Barriers

Plan International

Despite decades of activism and global leadership, girls' rights remain unfinished business. There have been some noteworthy successes, but a recent study by Plan International shows that we have a long, long way to go.

In the build-up to the International Day of the Girl (October 11), we should take a hard look at the state of girls' rights, both here and abroad. Last March, I published a blog about India's Daughter, a documentary that focuses on protests against individuals and nations that downplayed the murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, a medical student assaulted to death by six men as she took the bus home one evening. Plan's global study, Girls Speak Out, shows that fear of such violence is still a pervasive theme in girls' lives around the world.


Photo: Plan International

The study is part of Plan's State of the World's Girls report for 2015, titled The Unfinished Business of Girls' Rights, the ninth in a series. This year's report shows that large numbers of girls feel that they have little control over their lives and the decisions that determine their fate. Only 37 per cent of girls believe that they're given the same opportunities as boys. The survey heard from more than 4,200 girls in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, asking them about four barriers to their freedoms: gender-based violence at school and in the community, and early marriage and early pregnancy. Plan also conducted a small focus group with girls in Canada.

There is good news in the report: nearly 90 per cent of girls tell Plan that they have more opportunities in life than their mothers did. That's progress. But in developing countries, girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer malnutrition, and 63 million girls (many more than boys) don't attend school. As one young woman in Pakistan put it, "girls should take their own decisions about their lives. They should get a proper education and both the government and family members should agree."

Removing barriers to education, health care and other rights isn't enough. We need to focus on how girls can move beyond merely surviving, to thriving.


Photo: Plan International

When we spoke with girls in Canada, they said that they see inequality in their own lives in terms of a lack of acceptance for girls in male-dominated areas, such as math, sciences and sports, as well as in terms of insufficient numbers of women in leadership positions in workplaces and politics. Canadian girls also pointed to discriminatory treatment of girls and women in media and advertising, which they see as often sexist and sometimes violent. "The media perpetrates a certain image and make us feel awful," one 19-year-old woman from Ottawa said.

One solution is to change how families, communities and nations value girls. Once you start valuing girls, they develop confidence and aspirations -- aspirations that relate to their potentials, dreams and what they want to contribute to their communities.

To turn aspirations into realities, girls need more than access to schools and school supplies. They need an end to gender-based violence -- at schools and in their communities -- and they need a change in norms that treat girls as inferior to boys. Helping girls to feel confident isn't enough, because, like a bird smashing into a window, girls inevitably hit external barriers that are invisible and not of their own making. We need to break those windows -- break down those harmful norms and belief systems.

Change will come mainly from localized movements. We can talk about national and global efforts, such as the recent Sustainable Development Goals, which are important. But change will also need to come from youth supporting each other and from family members, male peers, community leaders and supportive laws and policies that protect their rights, especially when it comes to stopping violence against girls. As one girl in Nicaragua explained: "I would gather all girls to talk on this subject and tell them they should not remain silent if they are being abused."

In Plan's global study, girls talked about collective action, women's groups and breaking down taboos, as this young woman from Ecuador explained: "I would organize meetings with all the women my age to make demonstrations and march about women's rights, that we need information and to talk about topics considered by the society as taboos, to talk openly."

Girls' rights are human rights. We are all responsible for celebrating their accomplishments and standing up for their rights. This International Day of the Girl, pledge your support for girls' rights, and let's get down to the business of building the world we want.

Nidhi Bansal is the Senior Gender Equality Advisor at Plan Canada.


Women's Rights Protests In India