Girls are the most marginalized and vulnerable people on the planet, but they’re also the most powerful – if only they were free to reach their full potential. Throughout history, male-dominated societies have systematically repressed girls, erecting visible and invisible barriers to hold them back. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the continued denial of girls’ rights and the barriers preventing them from going to school, gaining meaningful employment and protecting their health isn’t just a stain on the global conscience, it’s an economic anchor that weighs down each and every one of us. And it has to stop.
On Oct. 11, the fifth International Day of the Girl, it’s time we all committed ourselves to doing something truly meaningful to help unlock the power of girls.
What’s holding them back? Harassment and fear of sexual violence. Lack of mentors and role models in leadership positions. Inflexible workplaces and an inexcusable gap in pay equity. “Boy and girl” stereotypes. Lack of access to education and health care, especially in developing countries where, in many cases, there aren’t even data to track how they are doing. For too long, in fact, millions of girls have been invisible to governments and policy makers because they are not being counted.
But here are some data we do know. Less than 4 per cent of CEOs of the world’s 500 leading corporations are women. More than half of companies in the materials and IT sectors have no women among their board members. And here in Canada, despite a federal cabinet with an equal gender balance, women continue to be underrepresented in many of our provincial and territorial cabinets.
In developing countries, girls are twice as likely to suffer malnutrition and 1.7 times more likely than boys to be illiterate. Pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls in the developing world.
Turning this around by investing in girls will have huge economic and social benefits for everyone.
For every extra year that a girl stays in school, her income can increase by 10 to 20 per cent, creating a better, brighter future for her and everyone around her. When a girl in the developing world receives seven years of education, she marries on average four years later and has 2.2 fewer – but healthier – children. Globally, if all women completed primary education, there would be 66 per cent fewer maternal deaths. As the McKinsey Global Institute has reported, advancing women’s equality could add almost $12 trillion (U.S.) – or 11 per cent – to global GDP by 2025.
Clearly, releasing the power of girls offers a huge return on investment for everyone, and it is simply the right thing to do. So why wouldn’t we make that an investment priority?
The commitment to leave no one behind, including girls and women, is at the heart of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also known as the Global Goals. The ambition to achieve gender equality and empowerment for girls by 2030 is immense, but it can – and will – be realized if people come together as a movement, with each playing their part to ensure the Global Goal commitments for girls are met.
Today, we’re calling on governments, coalitions, foundations, corporations, activists and every citizen to rally behind girls and drive transformative change by 2030. We’re urging everyone to get on the right side of history by investing in girls and removing the barriers that stand in the way of them living fair and fulfilling lives.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at this year’s G(irls)20 Summit in Beijing, “These young women are not the voices of tomorrow, they are global leaders here and now.”
But change won’t come just from governments, even those led by a self-declared feminist. We all have a responsibility to act.
Let’s work together to propel International Day of the Girl beyond being just a day of raising awareness of the plight of girls. Let’s make it a day where we can celebrate girls’ immense power in radically advancing the social and economic well-being of the world.
Farah Mohamed is Founder and CEO of G(irls)20.
Caroline Riseboro is President and CEO of Plan International Canada.
Published in the Toronto Star.