Progress But Not Success: Changing The Story For Girls

Progress but not Success: Changing the Story for Girls
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Around the world, humanitarian crises have put 20 million people in just four countries at risk of famine this year. War, natural disasters and unusual climatic events that are only set to worsen have pushed vulnerable communities in to refugee camps and exile. Of these victims, it is girls and women that suffer the greatest blow.

Despite improvements toward gender parity across the world, the difference in the experiences of men and women, boys and girls, remains jarringly unwavering. Although gender inequality is weaved in to nearly all aspects of society, in few places is it more visible than in the context of crisis. Today, on International Day of the Girl Child 2017, the theme is “EmPOWER Girls: Before, during and after crises”, presenting an opportunity and incentive for the international community to focus on a more targeted, more committed approach to dealing with girls affected by crisis.

Since 1945, 90 percent of casualties of conflict have been civilians, of which 75 percent have been women and children. As refugees, women and girls are the groups by far at the highest risk of sexual violence, and in the world’s conflict zones, 10 million girls are not in school – in fact, girls account for just 30 percent of refugees enrolled in secondary school. These statistics show the disproportionate effect of crisis on girls.

Looking to unveil the root cause of the disproportionate impact of conflict on girls and women, we must look at the broader context of gender inequality, that heightens the vulnerability of girls and women throughout life, both in peace and war.

Firstly, around the world girls have reduced access to education. An estimated 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are out of school and 15 million girls of primary-school age—half of them in sub-Saharan Africa— will never enter a classroom. In countries of low educational attainment, boys are almost universally favoured as recipients of schooling, and in later life earn higher salaries in every country around the world. Education is a fundamental pillar to economic empowerment and financial independence, and its absence creates a divide in which lesser educated girls and women struggle to compete with their male counterparts, having been denied the opportunity to learn in early life.

The last decade has witnessed an international drive towards girls’ education that has led to some convergence in the gender disparity in education – 90% of the world’s young women are now literate, for example. What’s more, international institutions have repeatedly accentuated the message that investment in girls’ education has higher returns than nearly any other area of development. Yet, to this day there are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school, making girls more vulnerable and less financially independent. This impacts women and girls during conflict too – with limited resources women are more susceptible to manipulation, and are often powerless to the resist intimidation and violence.

Another driving force of gender inequality is the burden of maternal care. Women bear the brunt of childbirth and typically assume the role of primary child carer. Yet around the world maternal and child health is vastly underfunded. Maternal mortality remains shockingly high in some countries – in South Sudan, for example, a woman has a 1 in 20 chance of dying during childbirth in her lifetime – and the issue is consistently overlooked at a public policy level, both nationally and internationally. In failing to provide for expectant mothers, and in the absence of solid frameworks that ensure that every mother is given the right to a safe birth, the world is failing women and girls around the world, and thwarting progress of unborn generations. Access to maternal healthcare is a right, and is key to addressing the gender imbalances that affect girls from birth through life.

At my foundation, the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, we address the maternal care deficit that pervades West Africa, and puts expectant mothers at unnecessary risk during pregnancy and childbirth. We host mamacare classes to educate women on the birthing process and maternal care, and ensure that all women we reach are seen by a trained midwife. What’s more, we advocate for universal personal health records, so to track and monitor health outcomes of women and children in some of the region’s more deprived areas.

Education and maternal health are two vehicles for gender equality that have the potential to empower girls and women around the world, and increase their resilience to hardship, burden, and conflict. Greater commitment and a directed focus is needed from the international community to address the plight of women and girls around the world in both peace and war who are undervalued by society, and pushed to the margins during conflict. Only then can true equality be realised.

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