Leading up to the year 2015, the United Nations and Civil Society are organizing a series of consultations to help shape the post-2015 development agenda. Part of this process is a Global Online Conversation, which provides a platform for people all over the world to share their visions for building a just and sustainable world free from poverty. The following contribution was made by IWHC to the online thematic consultation on Inequalities, specifically within the sub-discussion on “Inequalities faced by girls”.
Young people all over the world face a range of unique challenges to exercising their rights. Barriers to age-appropriate health services, meaningful education, and viable livelihoods opportunities are among the most pressing impediments to youth empowerment.
The International Women’s Health Coalition is centrally concerned with the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people. We believe that working with both young men and women is critical to ensuring that the rights of all young people, particularly girls, are universally protected and realized. The following contribution focuses specifically on the challenges facing girls, who continue to experience systematic social, economic and political marginalization in every part of the world.
Given the global persistence of gender inequality, many of the issues disproportionately affecting young people also tend to disproportionately affect girls. In 1997, UNAIDS reported that 60% of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa were among young people (aged 15-24), with a 2:1 ratio of infected girls to infected boys. This ratio continues to grow increasingly lopsided, with girls representing 74% of new infections among young people in 2009.
Additionally, girls face extraordinarily high rates of violence. The experience of violence, the perceived threat of violence, or the stigma associated with being a victim of violence hinder access to entitlements, opportunities for social participation, and employment.
In developing countries, 40% of girls have their first child before the age of twenty, many before the age of 18. Not only does this mean that more girls are dropping out of school, but girls are also more likely than adults to die, experience complications, or suffer chronic injuries related to childbirth. Because they have less access to contraceptives and are less sexually experienced, adolescents are more likely than adults to seek out unsafe (often late-term) abortions. Each year, it is estimated that 2 million to 4.4 million adolescents in developing countries have abortions, 70,000 unsafe abortions are carried out, and 13% of all maternal deaths occur as a result of unsafe abortion.
Early pregnancy is often associated with child marriage, a practice which also puts girls at increased risk of HIV infection. Female genital mutilation, infanticide, nutritional bias—these and other harmful traditional practices disproportionately affect girls, infringing on their fundamental rights and opportunities for development.
The short answer to why these inequalities exist is that girls, especially the most vulnerable girls, continue to remain invisible. Despite the aforementioned figures, policymakers have consistently masked the specific needs of girls within “male-focused and male-dominated community-based activities and generic ‘youth’ prevention initiatives, all of which widely miss the mark” (Bruce, Temin, & Hallman, 2012). This generic youth programming disproportionately benefits boys over girls overall, but it also favors unmarried to married girls, well-connected to socially marginalized girls, urban to rural girls, girls belonging to an ethnic majority to migrant or indigenous girls, and so on.
Girls also remain invisible because of how we measure progress. Primary education enrollment figures, for example, are based on one day of the school year; even if there were genuine parity on this particular day, these figures fail to account for the reality that girls often miss multiple days of school each week because their domestic and reproductive responsibilities take priority. Moreover, data on young people is rarely disaggregated, resulting in measures of participation which fail to report gender, age, marital status, and other critical factors.
The disproportionate burden that girls share for maternal morbidity and mortality, the time burdens that girls shoulder, the staggering inequalities in girls’ educational outcomes—these are all reversible realities. To tackle these disparities, we need to begin by making girls visible. We must call for the post-2015 agenda to pay particular attention to girls and the challenges that they face. The risks facing girls are well documented and the next step is to match the research with the necessary resources.
We need to make girls visible.
Making girls visible begins with how we count them. By properly counting girls and disaggregating data by age and gender, we can target youth programming at specific subsets of youth—like adolescent girls. We can also measure whether programs are actually reaching the girls who are most at risk.
We need to invest in girls.
We must invest in programming aimed specifically at girls, with an emphasis on the most at-risk populations of girls—those who engage in transactional sex, those who are forced into early marriage, those who fluently speak their native language but cannot communicate in their national language, and so on. These programs must include the following features.
- Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) must be thorough, scientifically sound, and culturally appropriate. It should take place in a safe and healthy learning environment and it should explicitly address gender norms and gender equality. When young people are educated about human rights, gender equality, and the role of power in relationships, they are not only equipped with the tools to negotiate their own health relationships, but they are also able to educate and influence power-brokers in their communities.
- Comprehensive services must be universally available and accessible. This means, access to high quality sexual and reproductive health care, all forms of safe and effective contraception, safe abortion and post abortion care, maternity care, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.
- Education is foundational to girls’ empowerment. We must ensure that all girls, no matter how poor, isolated or disadvantaged, are able to attend school regularly and without the interruption of early pregnancy, forced marriage, etc. Education—for both girls and boys—must go beyond academics and equip young people with life skills so that they are prepared to think critically and challenge discriminatory and repressive policies and practices.
- Empowering spaces ensure girls have the opportunity to feel secure, be themselves, and plan for their safety and development. Even if only for a few hours a week, accessing safe spaces allows girls to frame their own agendas, receive training on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and develop their social and economic capital. These participatory social spaces also foster opportunities for community-building and networking, mitigating the isolation that many girls experience.
We need to support young leaders.
We must continue to support both young women and young men to be advocates for change. Ensuring that reproductive rights are protected and promoted rests in the hands of young women and men, particularly young people throughout the global South. Young people should be involved in all types of decision making on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Seasoned advocates must be willing to pass the torch, share best practices, and work alongside—sometimes even be led by—a new generation of SRHR leaders.
As advocates, we can listen to one another and work in tandem to repeal legislation that legitimizes discrimination against girls and press for new protections that ensure equality of access to health services, jobs and earnings, education, property and all the rest. Addressing the profoundly complex root causes of gender inequality (and accordingly the inequalities experienced by girls) is not a simple challenge.
As we begin to develop a tangible action plan for the post-2015 development framework, we must remain mindful that shifting the social and cultural norms that permit and promote discrimination against girls is not a simple box-ticking task. We cannot continue to view gender equality as a singular aim, but rather as both an explicit goal and an issue that needs to be mainstreamed throughout the post-2015 development agenda.