International Day of the Girl Child: How one key date aims to change the future of girls around the globe

Theme of this year's IDOGC is 'The Power of the Adolescent Girl' – all have the right to a safe, educated and healthy life

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Indy Politics

Mariama was married off to an older man without her consent, aged 13. Early marriage is a major problem in her country of Niger. It doesn’t stop there: every year, globally, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18: 28 girls every minute. 

All adolescent girls have the right to a safe, educated and healthy life. Indeed, if they’re effectively supported during these critical formative years, girls have the potential to change the world – both as empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, entrepreneurs, mothers, mentors, household heads and political leaders. 

The problem is in many countries, the particular needs and challenges that adolescent girls face – which differ dramatically from those of boys, and are often a world away from adult women’s – are often missed, with early marriage just one of many issues destroying these girls’ lives. Even in areas where social programmes are in place, help is all too often focused on either children or adults, with nothing in between. 

No wonder the theme for this year’s International Day of the Girl Child (IDOGC) is ‘The Power of the Adolescent Girl,’ and more specifically a vision for 2030. The timing, says a spokesperson for the UN, could not be more opportune. This year, as the international community assesses progress under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) since their implementation in 2000 and sets goals to be achieved by 2030, girls born at the turn of the millennium have reached adolescence, and the generation of girls born this year will be adolescents in 2030.

This date is a great opportunity to galvanise international attention and support towards specific issues relating to girls’ rights

Tracy Shields, child rights programme adviser at World Vision UK

It’s an important time, she explains, to consider the importance of social, economic, and political investment in the power of adolescent girls as fundamental to breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty, violence, exclusion and discrimination; and to achieving equitable and sustainable development outcomes.

IDOGC should be a key date in everyone’s diary, believes Tracy Shields, child rights programme adviser at World Vision UK. “The International Day of the Girl was created in 2011 to recognise the rights of girls and the unique challenges they face across the different contexts of the world. This date is now a yearly reminder of this and is a great opportunity to galvanise international attention and support towards specific issues relating to girls’ rights. The theme this year is particularly important because it highlights the need to invest in and empower girls at this significant time in their lives.”

Sarah Edwards, head of policy and campaigns at Health Poverty Action, agrees, adding that – like many charities – they will use their website and social media channels to help raise awareness on IDOGC, in their case about the structural issues that can prevent adolescent girls from assessing their health rights. Edwards adds that in some countries, IDOGC will mark the beginning of a week of activities where those in power will attempt to bring about much-needed change via debate and awareness-raising. “In Rwanda, the Ministry of Education is planning to disseminate the newly finalised Girls Education Policy by attending discussions on TV chat shows and distributing handouts to different stakeholders, and our charity is supporting this within our project areas.”

Adolescence is an exciting time, full of opportunity, but also full of risk, says Micah Williams, senior gender-based violence advisor, at International Medical Corps. “Throughout our services, we see adolescent girls facing a particularly high risk of sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence. For a variety of reasons, the issue is rarely addressed, and girl survivors of violence too often suffer in silence or race isolation from their families and communities.”

There are lesser-known and specific dangers facing this age group too, such as suffering caused by obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury caused by a prolonged, obstructed labour that renders a woman incontinent – an injury that can only be treated through surgery. “While fistula patients vary widely in age, early marriage and teenage pregnancy are significant contributing risk factors for fistula, as the bodies of young girls are less physically prepared to carry and deliver a baby,” explains Kate Grant, CEO of Fistula Foundation, who points out that one in three girls in the developing world marries before she turns 18. “Too often these marriages happen without a girl’s consent, depriving her of the chance to finish school and often resulting in her becoming a mother before she is ready.”

The good news, she says, people are reaching out every day to try and end the suffering of obstetric fistula, so while IDOGC is important in exploring what needs to be done, she also hopes the day will celebrate what has already been achieved.

Many girls themselves share this view. Maua Juma from the Monduli district of Tanzania did not expect to be able to go to school as an adolescent, let alone be fed there. But thanks to ActionAid’s programme, she is now able to go every day, as well as getting two meals a day there for free. “We are also taught about girls’ rights,” says Juma. “I know now that going to school is my basic right and I want to go onto college.”

Donne Cameron, director of programmes at VSO, is also keen to applaud what’s been accomplished in recent years, in their case working directly with people on issues like child marriage, education inequality, child labour, trafficking and sex abuse. But, she adds, there is still a big mountain to climb. “In Nepal, for example, girls and women are disproportionately affected by the country’s 55 per cent extreme poverty rate. Sixty per cent of Nepali women are illiterate (higher in the villages) and 7 per cent of girls are married by the age of 10, 40 per cent by the age of 15. Thirty per cent more boys are sent to school as a parental priority and the girls are kept at home to look after younger siblings, work in the house or in the field. They are not seen as a priority.”

Moreover, the voices of females are regularly ignored when it comes to decision making, especially in relation to adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights policies and programmes, she says. “All of these things really limit the ability of adolescent girls to become the powerful and productive individuals they can and want to be,” says Cameron, who points out that in recent research conducted by VSO shows that in one province in Mozambique, 80 per cent of the drop out cases in school were due to  child marriages.

Today, girls in the first decade of life are more likely than they were 15 years ago to go to primary school, receive key vaccinations, and are less likely to suffer from health and nutrition problems than were previous generations. With similar investment into addressing the challenges girls face when they enter the second decade of their lives, the plight of older girls could be so different.

Case Study: Nataliya, Ukraine

Nataliya’s father abandoned her mother before she was born. From a young age, Nataliya was shunned by their Ukrainian community for being an illegitimate child. 

Nataliya’s mother also suffers mental health issues, causing her to beat Nataliya and prevent her from leaving the house. Eventually, unable to make ends meet, Nataliya’s mother sent her to live in a state institution. Here, Nataliya had to endure ruthless bullying from other children, her impoverished background and inadequate clothing making her an easy target. 

When Mission Without Borders (MWB) began working with Nataliya, now 17, she opened up about her dream of overcoming the poverty she has always known and pursuing further education. Last year, she was accepted by Rivne University to study primary school teaching, with MWB providing the scholarship to cover her fees and living costs, as well as ongoing emotional support.