* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
We must stop treating girls and women like commodities, and give them the same rights and opportunities as boys and men
Alanna Armitage and Bjorn Andersson are the UNFPA Regional Directors for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Asia-Pacific.
In a village in remote far-western Nepal, Rachana Sunar fought her father’s plans to marry her off when she was barely 15, pursuing higher studies instead. Today she’s an internationally renowned advocate fighting child marriage and pushing to strengthen women’s rights.
In Azerbaijan, where traditional social norms persist and the birth of a boy is still widely preferred to that of a girl, Janoghlan Ilyasov is a prominent public speaking champion who leads workshops encouraging men to examine their attitudes towards women and girls, helping them understand the harmful effects of son preference. But his most cherished role is loving father to his one-year-old daughter.
Though the soil they stand on and their languages and faiths may differ, Rachana and Janoghland share a similar conviction - that girls are worthy of love and care, are provided the opportunities to make their own choices and allowed to decide their own future.
But in many places, there are far too few people like them leading the change. Belief systems grounded in gender inequality continue to shape social norms and harmful practices that rob girls and women of the ability to exercise their rights and make choices governing their own bodies and lives.
Child marriage remains widespread across swathes of Eurasia, in countries ranging from India, Bangladesh and Nepal to Georgia, Turkey and Albania. 30 per cent of women aged 20-24 in South Asia, 7 per cent in East Asia and Pacific, and 12 per cent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia were married under the age of 18.
Son preference leading to gender-biased sex selection is well documented in South Asia, China and Viet Nam, as well as in the South Caucasus and parts of Southeastern Europe – contributing significantly to the demographic crisis triggered by an estimated 140 million “missing girls” globally, resulting in dangerously lopsided ratios of men to women.
In recent decades, a number of frameworks and agreements, grounded in gender equality and human rights, have been used to combat these harmful practices, including the landmark 1994 ICPD Programme of Action agreed upon by 179 governments with its vision of rights and choices for all, integral to achieving the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals.
Concerted advocacy from civil society and government champions supported by the UN have resulted in countries passing laws and measures meant to protect girls and women from these and other harms. While implementation has been inconsistent, tangible gains have occurred over time.
There’s been gradual progress in addressing harmful social and gender norms. Engaging parents, communities and religious leaders has reduced gender-biased sex selection.
Raising awareness across societies has also allowed more girls to avoid child marriage, complete their education, avail of economic opportunities and strengthen their chances of achieving their full potential.
We have seen greater access to essential information and services for girls and women, including in the sphere of sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.
Many governments are collecting better data on harmful practices, strengthening the evidence base for change and for what works in programming at the national and sub-national levels.
But we need to do much more.
We need an integrated approach to harmful practices – recognising their interlinked root causes and addressing them as a whole, rather than piecemeal.
We need to reframe the narrative – explicitly recognising that these practices are egregious human rights violations, rather than casting them as traditional or cultural practices which is often used to justify them.
In this vein, we must also explicitly recognise that gender equality is at the heart of the issue – that the low value of girls and women is what underpins harmful practices globally.
To governments and policymakers, and indeed to societies everywhere, the report sends a clear message: She counts.
We must stop treating girls and women like commodities to be traded or objects to be controlled, and afford them the same rights and opportunities as boys and men.
Communities must stand for equal rights for girls so they can stay in school, prepare for employment, learn about their choices, and shape their own lives.
Men must use their privilege to raise the value of girls and demand the equal treatment of girls and boys.
Economies and legal systems must guarantee all women equal opportunities to build a decent life based on equality, autonomy, dignity and choice.
And governments must honour the international agreements they have signed to protect women and girls’ rights and reproductive choices and end harmful practices definitively for once and for all.
As we write this, our world continues to grapple with the fallout of COVID-19. UNFPA estimates warn that the pandemic will disrupt planned efforts to end child marriage and cause far-reaching economic consequences, likely resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages globally that otherwise would not have occurred from 2020 to 2030.
The pandemic’s socioeconomic impact, along with a disruption in contraceptive supply chains, will contribute to unintentional pregnancies that could in turn exacerbate gender-biased sex selection.
In seeking to “build back better”, countries must put women and girls at the centre of their efforts.
Out of the current crisis we have a chance to refocus attention on ending harmful practices for once and for all. Millions of futures depend on what we do at this very moment. Let us not squander this opportunity.