Girls Should Be Girls: Standing Up for Girlhood on International Day of the Girl
This morning, I woke up to the wonderful news that Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala has done girls around the world proud by the manner in which she has stood up to hostility and spoken up for girls’ education and empowerment fearlessly—in Pakistan and around the world.
I grew up in neighboring India in a home that valued education for girls and boys. It always saddened me to watch girls my age help their mothers fetch water, cook, and clean while the boys went to school and enjoyed the simple joy of playing. I had never realized that playing could be such a luxury.
I especially remember my playmate Rani. She used to accompany her mother on visits to our house. She had never seen the inside of a school, and her marriage was already fixed. We would sneak away when we could to play and I tried to teach her to read, but I knew her mother did not approve.
Despite my own mother’s cajoling and persuading, Rani’s parents married her at 12. A few years later, I saw her mother and I was appalled to hear that Rani had died in a supposed kitchen fire, though her mother hinted at abuse from the family over dowry. Rani’s face haunts me still today.
At Pathfinder International, we work around the globe to ensure that this isn’t every adolescent girl’s story. We work every day to guarantee that girls can enjoy their childhood and exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.
Today, October 11, 2014, is the globally recognized International Day of the Girl. And this year’s theme—“Ending the Cycle of Violence”—brings focus to the physical, sexual, and emotional violence that is experienced by adolescent girls.
What motivates me—and my colleagues at Pathfinder—to continue in this fight are stories like Rani’s, or young Shayma in Egypt avoiding an early marriage thanks to her mom taking a stand, or Deolinda advocating for the sexual and reproductive rights of teens in Mozambique. We are seeing positive changes.
But our successes are continually thwarted by environments of violence.
Around the world, adolescent girls too often become targets of violence. Due to their age, gender, and limited social standing in society, adolescent girls are often pulled out of school, forced into marriage, pressured to have children, and isolated from their families.
Looking at the whole picture
At Pathfinder, we know that this type of violence has both short- and long-term impacts, not only for the survivor but for communities and entire generations to come.
We know we must work together across sectors to prevent violence before it occurs by addressing the underlying socio-cultural norms (including gender inequality) that lead to it in the first place. And we must ensure that survivors of violence, specifically gender-based violence, have access to the services, care, and support that they need within a system that knows it is being held accountable.
Pathfinder has been working for nearly 15 years across sectors—to make sure the health, judicial, and police sectors work together to increase community awareness and knowledge surrounding gender-based violence and galvanize preventative action and response. (Read about our recent event on multisectoral approaches to GBV prevention)
Taking our expertise to an underserved area
But there is a lot to be done. How many know that Niger has the highest rate of child marriage? One in every three girls is married off before she turns 15. Guinea and Burkina Faso are not far behind. Fifty-seven percent of Guinean girls are married before they turn 18; in Burkina Faso, it’s 52 percent.
While the dangers of early marriage are well known and there are efforts to stop this practice, the needs of girls who do marry early are often overlooked.
In recognition of this gap, Pathfinder is supporting efforts in in these three countries to ensure that married adolescent girls and young women have access to the sexual and reproductive health information and services that they need. (Read more about our West Africa Initiative)
On the International Day of the Girl, while we celebrate Malala’s Peace Prize, we must commit to ensuring that the millions of adolescent girls like Shayma in Egypt, Deolinda in Mozambique, and young married women in West Africa can exercise their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
That they are able to live a life free from discrimination and violence; to go to school, to play, to dream; to choose when and if to marry, to decide when and if to have children.
We must end the cycle of violence. We must give adolescent girls a chance to be girls. We must let millions of Malalas grow up fearlessly.
Photo by Simon de Trey White.