This article celebrates the International Day of the Girl Child, 11 October, 2014.
Think of Malala Yousafzai, the teen-aged Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school, and you’ll be envisioning a ‘shero’. That’s my word for a young woman who is mightier than the oppressors who would deny her an education. Malala is not alone. In developing nations around the world there are many, many young girls who are struggling to gain their rights and access a brighter future.
As we celebrate the third annual United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2014, with numerous awareness and fundraising events around the globe, the notion of girl power is gaining momentum. Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl campaign has directly benefited 2 million girls globally, assisting with education, nutrition and livelihood skills. The United Nations Foundation campaign Girl Up supports American girls in raising awareness and funds for the many United Nations programs that help some of the world’s hardest-to-reach adolescent girls. Crossroads International is supporting Girls Empowerment Clubs in Swaziland, where there is the world’s highest incidence of HIV/AIDS and one in three girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. So far the clubs, which are run by the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), have 1,200 members with a target of 4,000 by 2016.
In the world’s developing countries there are currently more than 600 million adolescent girls. They are bright and bursting with hope and dreams, but often life circumstances hold them back. Poor access to education, high levels of child marriage and health risks of pregnancy trap them in a cycle of poverty and abuse.
Why are these campaigns focusing on girls and not boys? Because girls are young and vulnerable. At the same time, studies show they are more likely to help break the cycle of poverty. Investing in girls – and ensuring they have enough to eat, an education and a safe environment – is the key to transforming lives, and lifting families, communities and entire nations out of poverty.
I was living in Swaziland and working for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse when the first International Day of the Girl Child was launched in 2012. A media committee was formed with SWAGAA’s partners and we worked hard to get the stories of young Swazi girls, in their own words, published in newspapers and broadcast on radio. Themba Masuku, then deputy prime minister, spoke passionately about the need to prosecute the sexual predators preying on Swazi girls and said family members who did not report abuse were as liable as the criminals. I was particularly moved by the performances of young members of the Girls Empowerment Clubs at the launch event. These clubs teach girls how to report abuse to authorities, they also teach them life skills and to believe in themselves. It was heartbreaking to know what some young girls have had to endure with forced early marriages, sexual abuse and neglect, but it was also encouraging to hear club members sing out “I can be what I want to be, the sky’s the limit” with hope shining in their eyes.
The Children’s Welfare and Protection Act was also passed that year, making it illegal for a girl under 18 to be married against her wishes. It still goes on, impoverished families deliver up their girl children as “custom and tradition” wives to adult males for lobola, or bride price (usually an agreed upon number of cows). However, with the new law at least now there is a mechanism in place for challenges to this practice.
The empowerment of the girl child is not an easy process. However, with new laws in countries such as Swaziland and a growing global concern for young girls, we are getting closer to increased equity. If we really want to live in a healthier, more harmonious world, it’s up to all of us to speak out, to support girls in developing nations and allow them to reach their full potential. We need to let them realize that the sky truly is the limit.