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It’s opening week at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, always a frenetic time when thousands of women’s rights activists and member state delegations descend upon New York to review the current state of affairs for women and girls globally and recommend actions states can take to advance gender equality and promote female empowerment.
CSW’s priority theme this year focuses on the “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls,” but everyone in attendance is eyeing the conversation as it relates to the next global development framework that will be decided when the Millennium Challenge expires next year. That’s a conversation that has various sectors vying for attention on the agenda, and though gender equality is certainly a cross-cutting issue, it is no different in this regard. The CSW will publish an outcome document at the end of two weeks of events, deliberations and negotiations, and feminist activists are keen to ensure it takes a strong stand in support of gender equality and female empowerment at the center of the next framework.
The International Center for Research on Women is particularly concerned about the status and rights of girls, which were largely neglected in the MDGs. At a time of the largest youth generation in history, when an ever expanding evidence base documents challenges for girls and their centrality to the success of development efforts, we cannot afford to continue to ignore this critical demographic in development and human rights frameworks. Neither CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of the Child nor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically articulated the unique rights abuses faced by girls. Development frameworks fare no better. Even under the banner of MDG 3, on gender equality, the only mention of girls in the MDG targets was to “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.” As we all know, there’s a lot more to a girl’s life than school, although that was and continues to be crucial to her development, wellbeing and empowerment.
ICRW’s contribution to this review was the UN launch of a report documenting the status of girls globally and showcasing the voices of more than 500 of the 250 million adolescent girls currently living in poverty around the world. “I Know. I Want. I Dream. Girls’ Insights for Building a Better World” gives us a comprehensive review of the literature on girls’ lived experience, and, importantly, records the insights and recommendations of girls themselves about what they think is most important for global leaders to keep in mind as they craft the post-2015 development agenda. This report, which we co-authored with the research firm 2CV and published with support from the Nike Foundation, contextualizes and provides background for the Girl Declaration, a companion advocacy tool that presents a proposal for concrete goals and targets on adolescent girls for the post-2015 development framework. It was presented to the UN Secretary General last fall on the International Day of the Girl.
All in all, 508 girls ages 10-19 in 14 countries and across 4 continents were surveyed about their lives, challenges they face and goals for the future and for the post-2015 agenda. Most were living on less than $2 a day and represent the most vulnerable girls in their society. They come from urban and rural areas, in school and out of school, married and unmarried, many caring for family members, and many with limited access to healthcare and other essential services.
Girls - many of whom had never been asked their opinion on anything before -were incredibly eager to share their thoughts. They take great pride in their communities and countries, and want to contribute to the welfare of their family and their people, just as the development literature tells us will happen when we invest our resources in girls.
Several common themes emerged across cultures and contexts. Girls voiced their disappointment and frustration with widespread discrimination and marginalization, be it from the state (such as not having the birth certificates they need to access rights and services, own or inherit property and the like), or the family and community (a high and inequitable chore burden and narrow expectations or mobility as compared to boys, and particularly strong anxiety and apprehension about marriage, including not being able to freely decide when and whom to marry).
In every country, girls discussed the threat of violence and their lack of trust in authority figures who are supposed to prevent or respond to violence when it happens. Girls talked about a range of forms of violence, from female genital mutilation in Ethiopia to rape in DRC or kidnapping in Mexico. They spoke of limited access to water, sanitation, education, jobs, money and health.
As for what they want to see global leaders prioritize in the next set of development goals, without a doubt, girls want to have more, safer and better education—education that equips them for successful transitions to adulthood and that will help them become productive, successful members of their societies. They want the opportunity to work, and to have the relevant skills and knowledge they need to be able to access those jobs. They want information they can understand about their bodies, their sexuality and health. They want to live free of violence and to choose if, when and whom to marry.
These are the recommendations we are seeking to carry to global leaders now crafting the development framework the world will inherit next year. We want another—but a better—MDG 3 on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. We want it to pay more attention to girls—not just affix them as a rhetorical afterthought. We want concrete targets for improving the situation of girls, including: ending child marriage by 2030; decreasing by half the rate of adolescent pregnancy in the same time. We want the next global development agenda to ensure that ALL girls not only complete primary school, but transition to and complete quality and free secondary education, which is safe and tailored to prepare them for the reality they will encounter upon graduation. We want to increase by 50% girls’ savings and access to financial services. We want girls to be able to access comprehensive and accurate sexual and reproductive health information and services, and to understand their sexual and reproductive rights.
Through our advocacy, we hope to augment and support the chorus of feminist voices—and most importantly the voices of girls themselves—calling for a strong outcome document at the CSW and firm commitments to girls in the post-2015 development framework.
If you agree, you can join us today. One thing every one of us can do, right now, either as an individual or on behalf of an organization, is to sign on to the Girl Declaration. Log on to girleffect.org and sign your name, or to provide an organization’s logo and commitment email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ours is a growing movement that seeks to learn from yesterday’s mistakes to ensure a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow for all.
ICRW's Ann Warner contributed to this post.