The WGG Partners with the Department of Public Information on an NGO Briefing Focusing on Girls’ Education

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“Investing in girls’ education delivers well-known returns. When girls are educated, they are more likely to earn higher wages and obtain better jobs, to have fewer and healthier children and to enjoy safer childbirth.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – World Population Day, 11 July 2009

The Working Group on Girls partnered with the UN Department of Public Information to produce the April 1, 2010 NGO Briefing entitled, “Girls’ Education” An End to Poverty?”

Established as a human right over 60 years ago, education is unquestionably a valuable investment for countries in the development of their people, allowing them in turn to make better lives for themselves. Nowhere is this more important than in developing countries, and most specifically among the adolescent female population. According to an important study on the subject by the Center for Global Development, entitled Girls Count: A Global Investment and Action Agenda: “without adequate skills and training, and without access to economic self-sufficiency, many girls in developing countries enter into child marriages. One in seven girls in developing countries marry by age 15, and in 15 countries throughout South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, almost half of all girls are married before age 18.” There is also a very strong link between lack of education, gender inequality and poverty. This is underscored by the Girls Count study: “approximately one-sixth of the world’s young people live on less than two dollars a day….This level of extreme poverty determines the lives and possibilities for many young women and girls, such as the 122 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa who live on less than one dollar a day.”

Indeed, for girls and women living in poverty, education is not only the key to a brighter future but the means for survival and a critical driver for economic growth worldwide. Fortunately, considerable progress has been made towards shrinking the gender gap in education: overall female enrollment at the primary level in low-income countries has grown from 87% in 1990 to 94% in 2004, the result of governments among others, recognizing the centrality of girls’ education to development.

This Briefing focused on the issue of girls’ education and its connection to development. Specifically, the panel examined how the issue is being addressed in the sub-Saharan country of Benin, where significant strides have been made during the past decade to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary schools. Severe constraints and challenges nevertheless remain for the country to reach the goal of universal education, and adequate action is necessary to overcome obstacles that girls face in becoming productive women and citizens. To help the attendees better understand the challenges of girls’ education in Benin, part of the documentary “Time for School,” produced by Channel Thirteen and aired on their program “Wide Angle” was screened.  The film follows seven children from around the world, including a young girl from Benin, Nanavi, in their struggles to receive an education.

As we continue to promote the goal of “Education for All” advocated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] we hope this Briefing will serve as a further motivation for NGOs who work in the arena of education for girls.

Moderator: María-Luisa Chávez; Chief, NGO Relations, Department of Public Information (DPI)

Speakers

H.E. Jean-Francis Régis Zinsou, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations

Elizabeth Fordham, Education Programme Specialist, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in New York

Tamara Rosenberg, co-producer of Time for School 3, Public Broadcasting Service/Thirteen

Winifred Doherty, Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd representative to the United Nations in New York and member of the Working Group on Girls

Investing in Girls’ Health: Age 10 is too late

Earlier this month, we attended the launching of a major report by the Center for Global Development, entitled “Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health.” A follow up to its 2008 publication, “Girls Count” the report and panel discussion made a strong case for investing in the health of adolescent girls. “Most girls enter adolescence healthy” the report says, but then face a myriad of gender-driven pitfalls, trapdoors and health risks that can short-circuit their own development and that of generations of women. Investing in the health of adolescent girls can smooth their entry into adulthood as empowered young women with productive healthy futures and as agents of positive change for coming generations of families, communities and society.

The standing-room-only event (filled by half or more with girls and young women) reflected an explosion of recent interest in the importance of girls (as in women and girls) from a number of public and private spheres – the US State Department,, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Nike Foundation, publications such as “Girls Count” and three installments of PLAN International’s excellent yearly reports called “Because I am a Girl.” The UN Secretary General has just released a new report on the girl child, http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=a/64/315, and  the  2010 15th anniversary review of the  Beijing platform for Action, which includes a separate section on girls, (Eliminating all forms of discrimination  against the Girl Child) www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/girl.htm will take place in February.

For those of us who have long been advocating for girls’ rights, this event and the revival of attention to the reality of their situation – and promise — is welcome news. But  is this the right message? Adolescent girls represent a critical population and life stage whose needs and promises are largely ignored. But  pitfalls and trapdoors  and health risks don’t appear at age 10; they are there from birth and before. So using the term ‘girls’ to mean adolescent girls runs the risk of ignoring another another critical population and life stage.

If girls are defined by age 10 and over, what then are girls below 10? They are “children” a stage of life viewed widely and erroneously as gender neutral. But children are not gender neutral and many girls do not enter adolescence healthy. Women in developing countries, who argued for a life cycle approach to women’s rights, did not suggest it that life cycle started at 10 years of age any more than it started at 18.

There is no shortage of evidence that children are gendered from birth and before. Deeply entrenched son preference in parts of the world has resulted in  millions of ‘missing girls’ through sex selection, female infanticide and deaths of young females whose health is often ignored until it is too late.

Ample research shows that gender norms are in place between ages three and five, that by ten, girls themselves already know what society expects of them and that they are second-class citizens. Girls in countries such as Ethiopia and Djibouti are subjected to female genital mutilation between the ages of three and ten.,and many girls are already promised in marriage at six or seven or even at birth. Preadolescent girls are still fetching water miles from their homes, and at six and seven taking care of even younger siblings and ailing relatives. They are facing dangers on the road that delay their entry into school and/or curtail their ability to pay attention, furthering the likelihood of early drop out and increased vulnerability to the exploitation and health-risks of adolescence.  In some countries, young girls face the risk of HIV infection – defiled by men who think that raping virgins will cure or protect them from the virus In short, as preadolescent girls face unprecedented gender-based violence, we can’t wait until they are adolescents to pay attention.

It was not so long ago that many leaders of the women’s movement in Europe and the U.S. viewed all females under the age of 18 as ‘children’ whose inclusion in the struggle for women’s rights would only dilute their efforts. The growing support for adolescent girls is significant progress, but advocates should not make the same mistake by dismissing their younger sisters (who will one day be adolescents) as children who are safe, protected and healthy, free from the dangers of discrimination until the age of 10.  Young or infant female children are already at the bottom of the heap after boys, men and women. Let’s not take away their identity as girls.

The simple act of including the word ‘adolescent’ in advocacy for girls leaves space for others to define girls from birth – or before – onward.

This is the first of four articles on the subject of girls  rights and development.

Sara Friedman and Hourig Babikian

Hourig Babikian, former UN representative for Christian Children’s Fund, served at UNICEF in the Office of Public Partnership for more than ten years. She helped to found the NGO Working Group on Girls in 1994 and was a co-coordinator of the group until 2009. Hourig lives in the Philadelphia area where she is currently a management consultant.  This guest article  reflects the author’s individual opinions only, and should not be construed to represent the opinions or positions of the Working Group on Girls.

Sara Friedman, former managing editor of Global AIDSLink with the Global Health Council, is currently a freelance writer who continues to write on health an development issues. with a special emphasis on gender and human rights. She was a co-coordinator of the Working Group on Girls from 1994-2000, This article reflects the author’s individual opinions only, and should not be construed to represent the opinions or positions of the Working Group on Girls.