Action Alert

Day of the Girl: Promoting Gender Equality at a Young Age

Day of the Girl: Promoting Gender Equality at a Young Age
Young women at Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India.

On a day dedicated to the female youth of the world, nations will reflect on what issues still exist and what work must still be done for gender equality.

Four years ago, the United Nations established October 11 as the Day of the Girl to address the inequality, poverty and violence that girls experience as a result of their gender.

The United Nations has pursued gender equality, universal access to primary education, reduced child mortality and improved maternal health since 2000 as part of its Millennium Development Goals. With the deadline now over for these goals to be achieved, many of the issues that faced girls in 2000 — lack of education, poverty, violence and child marriage — still affect too many girls in 2015.

“Girls’ lives continue to be limited by the double jeopardy of their being young and female,” said Plan International, an independent children’s development organization, in their 2014 report on girls’ pathways to empowerment.

Their age and gender can mean fewer opportunities, less choice and more danger for girls in many countries, including in the United States. They are more likely to live in poverty, to have less access to education, to be married before adulthood and to be victims of violence than other populations.

If afforded more opportunities, girls could have a large impact on the productivity and progress of their nations. In fact, girls could be the solution to issues that affect all women, from poverty to health.

“The quest for gender equality among children must be the first step toward gender equality among adults,” said human rights experts and advocates Professor Savitri Goonesekere and Dr. Rangita De Silva-De Alwis in a UNICEF report. “As women’s inferiority to men begins in childhood, efforts to combat discrimination must begin in childhood.”

A Cycle of Poverty

About 60 to 70 percent of women and girls live in poverty worldwide. With more than 2 billion people living on less than $2 per day, that means at least 1.2 billion women and girls are living in those conditions.

When families are forced to live on this meager sum, women and girls are the most likely to go without. According to Care, a nonprofit organization that focuses its efforts on women to fight global poverty, girls are usually the last to eat and the first to stop going to school when food and money are scarce. As a result, girls are three times more likely to suffer from undernutrition than boys.

Undernutrition kills about 3.1 million children under the age of five each year. For those who survive, it leads to developmental stunting and increased vulnerability to diseases.

The undernutrition of a mother also affects her children’s health, not only because of their shared conditions but also because of her undernutrition during pregnancy. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “A mother who was malnourished as a fetus, young child or adolescent is more likely to enter pregnancy stunted and malnourished. Her compromised nutritional status affects the health and nutrition of her own children. These intergenerational effects can be turned into a vicious cycle perpetuating malnutrition from one generation to the next.”

To stop this cycle, undernutrition must be addressed before women start families. One solution is to provide girls with an education, and with it, the ability to secure a better future.

Educating Girls to Escape Poverty

The gender disparity fluctuates depending on the country, but the overall literacy rate for female youth is lower than the rate for male youth, revealing a worldwide trend of girls receiving less education.

About 30 million girls are out of school, and that number has actually been increasing since 2011, according to the World Bank.

The chances for education are much lower for girls, especially for those in poverty. If they are given an education, girls will not only secure a brighter future for themselves, but for others as well. Educating girls has been shown to help eradicate poverty and could have a sweeping global effect.

If a girl is able to climb out of poverty due to new work opportunities afforded through education, her children are more likely to live outside of poverty as well. Countries that fail to ensure girls receive an education see less economic growth compared to countries that make it a priority. The productivity of the country improves, as does the overall health of households, when countries invest in girls’ education.

“Having paid work and an income can liberate and empower girls as they grow into women, ensuring that as they move from dependence on their fathers they do not simply move on to being dependent on a husband, but are able to have more choice about their lives,” wrote Nikki van der Gaag in Plan International’s 2014 The State of the World’s Girls Report. “Earning money and controlling assets and wealth is a huge part of power, and is a marker for the transition from childhood to adulthood. The danger for girls is that this key step never happens.”

A girl’s education also means she will have fewer and healthier children, creating a better future for them through her own education.

According to the United Nations, an educated girl is much more able to plan when she will start to have children and how many children she will have. Such power gives her the ability to better look after her own health and the health of her children. Educated girls are also more likely to be able to ensure their children’s health against disease and undernutrition. According to the United Nations, about 12 million children would be saved from undernutrition if their mothers had received a secondary education.

While some countries have made more of an effort to educate girls, others have seen little progress in the last 15 years. Sub-Saharan Africa is the “epicenter of crisis,” according to the United Nations, because of its extreme poverty and high child and maternal mortality rates.

United Methodist Women funds regional ministries in this area, which have been working on addressing the vulnerabilities of those in poverty, including access to education.

Elmira I. Sellu, a United Methodist missionary, works on women’s leadership development in her home country of Sierra Leone, as well as other African nations. A refugee herself, she made sure refugee children could stay in school, and she mobilized women to start small businesses. She continues to develop workshops and seminars addressing the issues affecting women and children, with a certain emphasis on “the girl child in Africa,” Sellu said.

In the United States, the gender disparity in primary and in secondary schools is much smaller. However, though high school dropout rates are a concern for all genders, girls face different challenges that may cause them to drop out. For girls, one of the most cited causes of dropping out are family obligations and pregnancy, according to the National Women’s Law Center. In contrast, boys tend to drop out for disciplinary, academic or employment reasons. The magnitude of this problem is worse in some states more than others. Nevada, for example, had the lowest graduation rates in 2012, with a 65 percent graduation rate for girls in public high school. The graduation rates are even lower for African-American, Hispanic and American Indian girls.

Still, women outnumber men in higher education institutions. This doesn’t mean, however, that girls in the United States stand on equal footing with boys; despite the increase in girls in higher education, boys still outnumbers girls in STEM education and are underrepresented in high-paying fields when they grow up. What girls study tends to promote disparities in their adult lives, such as lower-paying jobs on average.

The gender disparity in education is a multi-faceted problem no matter the country, caused partly by girls’ likelihood to be in poverty but also because of social norms associated with their gender.

Part of it can be the lack of value that parents in certain cultures put on a girl’s education. Some societies put little value on putting girls through school, so parents are less likely to spend money on a daughter’s education than a son’s. For example, in rural Ghana, uneducated parents often don’t see the value of girls’ education, according to chieftain Nana Ogyedon Tsetsewah. A girl’s traditional role is to help in the household, and that role comes in direct conflict with receiving a formal education outside the house. Education also comes in conflict with what parents may believe to be their daughters’ future: becoming wives and mothers.

"My people count their blessings as the number of children a man has,” Tsetsewah said.

Such cultural beliefs don’t only exist in Ghana, but in societies across the world. In Nepal, for example, one 15-year-old girl describes her parents’ view on her education: “I complete all the household tasks, go to school, again do the household activities in the evening, and at night only I do my school homework and I study. Despite all the activities, my parents do not give value or recognition to me. They only have praise for my brother, as he is the son.”

Yet another barrier is that girls, for various reasons including money, honor, tradition and perceived safety, are married young and can’t continue their education into their adolescence.

Marrying Young

Poverty not only limits access to education, but it can also be a driving force in placing girls in vulnerable positions, where they become more at risk for child marriage and violence.


Girls from poor families are twice as likely to be married as girls from wealthier families. About 1 in 3 girls in developing countries will be married before they turn 18 years old. About 142 million girls will be married by the end of this decade.

The United Nations notes, “[Child marriage] effectively brings a girl’s childhood and adolescence to a premature and unnatural end by imposing adult roles and responsibilities before she is physically, psychologically and emotionally prepared.”

This practice occurs in every part of the world, with the most cases in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The United States, however, is not immune to this issue. While no official data exists, a 2011 Tahirih Justice Center study found at least 3,000 cases of forced marriage in the United States.

Desiree was one such case, when she was forced to marry at the age of eight. She, along with several other girls including Jeanne (15) and Amy (14), became the “spiritual wives” of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministry leader. Believed to be in a cult, their parents either couldn’t say no or believed the marriages to be an honor. While these marriages were not legally binding, other cases of child marriage in the United States are. Girls like Liset Landeros, who married her boyfriend at the age of 14 in Texas, could do so legally with the consent of a parent or judge.

According to the Cornell University Law School, most states allow marriage with parental consent for teens ranging from 15 to 17 years old. With judicial consent, marriage involving girls younger than 15 could be valid, as was the case for Liset Landeros. Of those states with the lowest minimum ages, New Hampshire allows marriage with parental consent and/or judge’s approval for girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 years old. In Massachusetts, girls can be 12 years old, and boys can be 14. Other states that mandate lower minimum age requirements for girls include Rhode Island, Ohio, Delaware, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“When it comes to child-marriage laws, the United States and Canada have more in common with Niger and Bolivia than with other Western, industrialized nations,” Atlantic journalist Olga Khazan wrote. However, the United States’ efforts to end child marriage are being made outside the nation’s borders.

The U.S. has begun to address the issue through USAID developmental assistance programs that address child marriage as part of its mission to promote gender equality. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) also prioritizes reducing the number of child marriages internationally.

The United Nations believes child marriage denies girls their fundamental rights to education, health and safety.

UNFPA’s Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin said education is key for girls; it is both a right and a strategy to end child marriage. Child marriage disempowers girls before they can be educated and makes them dependent on their husbands, according to a United Nations report on child marriage. The practice can also risk their lives, whether through childbirth, disease or domestic violence.

STDs especially are a danger to young girls. Married girls are about 75 percent more at risk for HIV/AIDs than their older counterparts are, due to multiple factors such as less power in the marriage to say no or use contraceptives.

In some parts of Africa, the myth that having sex with a young virgin cures HIV is another factor that leads to earlier marriages and more cases of HIV/AIDS in adolescent girls. In South Africa, for example, The Palmerton Care Centre—housed in a Methodist Church in Lusikisik—helps girls who ran away from their marriages with treatment and other services — girls like the one who told her story to the World Aids Campaign for its documentary Ukuthwala – Stolen Innocence.

“They made me go with them to the house where the man lived. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. That I was getting married,” the girl recalled. "There was this old man in the room and he told me, ‘I paid cattle for you and whether you like it or not you are my wife.’”

Girls under the age of 15 are also five times more likely to die during childbirth than women; in fact, UNICEF found that pregnancy complications are one of the leading causes of death for girls 10-19 years old.

In Brazil, for example, more than one in three girls gets married before turning 18, according to UNICEF. The third-leading cause of death for girls their age? Pregnancy complications and childbirth. It’s not only the girls’ lives that are at stake; a higher risk exists for their children as well, due to their mother’s age. Globally, children born to girls are twice as likely to die in infancy as children of older mothers. Child marriage is normalized and informal in Brazil, according to Plan International researcher Alice Taylor. Girls might seek it to escape violence in their family homes, while men seek younger girls because they are easier to control or more desirable, Taylor said.

So why do parents agree to child marriage when it is so risky?

Parents might marry their young girls off to alleviate their poverty. A married daughter means a reduction in the parents’ expenses, or getting a dowry (also known as a bride price) from the prospective husband. However, doing so may keep the cycle of poverty in place. Wives aren’t usually allowed to continue their education and thus have fewer opportunities to make money to help support families, according to the United Nations.

Though child marriage affects girls directly due their age and gender, its effects carry into adulthood and have ramifications for the next generation. More than 30 percent of women in the world today were married as children, meaning their children are more at risk for undernutrition, disease, violence and early marriage as well. Therefore, their girls might also never receive a full education and will most likely live in poverty.

Money is not the only reason parents may want their young daughters to marry. Child marriage is tradition in some communities and not continuing it can mean exclusion.

As community leader Chief Chamunka VI in Zambia notes, “"I feel that in our communities there are certain customs and cultural practices that are good and some are bad — this has to stop."

As one Pakistani-based women’s rights group realized, marriage laws aren’t enough to create change when the culture deems the practice so acceptable. The nonprofit Sujag Sansar Organization (SSO) performs plays to communities in Sindh to inform parents and potential husbands about the negative consequences of child marriage. By engaging communities about their traditions and challenging them with educative forums, SSO was able to prevent child marriages that would occur despite the marriage laws in place.

Marriage for Safety

Others in areas with high rates of sexual violence feel they have to marry their children young for their own safety.

Conflict areas like Syria can see surges in child marriage; within Syrian refugee communities in Jordan, the rate of child marriage has doubled to one in four girls under the age of 18. Due to extreme poverty and fear of sexual violence, parents feel they must marry their daughter to older men for protection. Maha’s parents married her to a man for these exact reasons when she was 12 years old.

"First of all, I didn't want to get married because I am too young, but my parents forced me to. Second of all, we heard about a lot of rape and kidnapping cases in Jordan. But no, not at all,” the now 13-year-old Maha said. “I didn't want to get married. I am still young, and I wanted to finish my studies."

However, women that were married as girls are more likely to experience sexual and domestic violence. Due to their age, gender and lack of education, girls are more vulnerable to experience violence at the hands of their intimate partners.

Girls are twice as likely to have reported abuse and three times more likely to have reported sexual assault in the last six months as older married women, in a survey conducted in India.

Some girls like Barira in Niger take their chances by running away to escape domestic violence. Married when she was 15, Barira was beaten by her husband and despite her situation was still urged to remain with him.

“[My parents] insisted he was family and told me I wasn’t in a position to say no,” Barira said. “I couldn’t accept that, because he was hitting me. It was too much suffering.”

By not being able to say no when they are too young and thus at risk for pregnancy complications, girls are more in danger when married than parents think. Girls have less bargaining power in marriage than older women, meaning they have less say in their own reproductive health. This lack of power over when to have children and how many explains the increased child and maternal mortality rates in child marriages.

Violence Against Girls

Parents aren’t unjustified in trying to ensure their daughters’ safety from violence. The type of violence that disproportionally targets women is the same violence that affects girls. Their vulnerability to violence, first stemming from their gender, is intensified further by their age.

Violence is the second leading cause of death for girls ages 10-19, with the highest rates in South Asia and Africa, according to UNICEF. Gender based violence starts even before birth. Sex selective abortion is a common practice, where families choose to abort children if they are female.

This can be dangerous for mothers, who may be forced to seek abortions in unsafe conditions depending on a country’s policies on abortion. According to the World Health Organization, women in areas where gender selection occurs are also often forced or pressured to have children until a boy is born. This continuous childbearing is dangerous for both mothers and their babies. By having children in quick succession, mothers don’t refuel on important nutrients, such as iron and folic acid. This undernutrition can lead to preterm births, fetal growth retardation and increased risk of maternal mortality and morbidity. Closely spaced pregnancies are associated with long-term risks for the mother’s health as well, with higher rates of mortality and morbidity.

Gender selection can also occur after birth, leading to more infanticide cases for girls than boys. Sex selection and female infanticide are more common in Asia, especially in countries that have a limit on the number of children per family, like China and India. In China, there are about 106 men to every 100 women, while there are about 107 men per every 100 women in India. However, sex selection does still occur outside of Asia; former Soviet countries also have higher ratios of men to women than should happen naturally. Countries such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have seen major increases in sex selective abortions since 2000. The practice has also been cited in Australia and the United States among certain immigrant communities.

According to the United Nations, sex selection occurs in cultures where sons are more highly valued than daughters, and increases when there is a trend of declining family size. Such conditions can result in sex selection, no matter the country.

The United Nations estimates that more than 117 million girls are ‘missing’ because of this practice. Not only is this a form of discrimination against the human rights of these young girls, but it also has ramifications for women. Societal and family pressure can force women to continue to get pregnant until a son is born and to have unsafe abortions where services are denied. A high male-to-female population can also lead to increases in human trafficking and mail-order brides.

Trafficking and Mail-Order Brides

Human trafficking affects both men and women; however, women and girls make up the majority of those trafficked for profit. According to the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2015, about 21 million people are being currently trafficked. Women and girls make up 55 percent of those trafficking victims around the world, according to the International Labor Organization.

In India, about 25,000 15- to 30-year-old women and girls were kidnapped and sold into marriage in 2013, according to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau.

Tasleema and her sister Akhleema met this fate after their parents, living in poverty, sold them to traffickers. They were eventually sold to two brothers in another province for more than $2,000. They are originally from Kolkata, and their family was so poor, they decided to sell the girls to a trafficker. Others, like 16-year-old Jaida, are kidnapped and are never heard from again. In Jaida’s state of Assam, about 10 girls are kidnapped every day, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau’s 2012 report.

“Traffickers capitalize on the shortage [of girls] by recruiting or kidnapping women ensnared in poverty to sell as brides,” CNN correspondent Carl Gierstorfer reported. “It's a cycle influenced by poverty and medical technologies, but one that ultimately is perpetuated by India's attitude towards women.”

Violence and Abuse

Other forms of violence include child abuse and sexual violence.

As they grow, girls become at risk for abuse at home and in schools. Two out of three 10- to 14-year-old girls in the world are physically abused on a regular basis.


Most perpetrators of violence against girls are people they know — parents, other family members, intimate partners, peers, neighbors or authority figures. In its study of 63 countries, UNICEF found that about four in five children (ages 2-14) experience violence in the home. That violence continues through adolescence and increases girls’ chances of experiencing intimate partner violence later in life.

Abuse can take the form of sexual violence, which about 120 to 150 million girls experience in their lives, according to UNICEF. This type of violence, especially among adolescent girls, is most commonly committed by intimate partners.

In the United States, about 19 percent of women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, while another 44 percent experienced other forms of sexual violence. About 40 percent of these women were younger than 18 when they were assaulted.

According to UNICEF, rates of violence against women and girls increases in countries where these gender roles are more pronounced and unequal. Violence can be seen as justified if the girl or woman strays from her culturally defined role.

Men and boys play an important part in changing the culture that allows gender-based violence; however, it’s the education of girls that could create the most dramatic shift, according to Judy Vredenburgh, President and Chief Executive of Girls Inc.

“Investing in education to help girls understand that they have value and that women and men have the same rights increases the likelihood that they will be able to recognize and extricate themselves from risky situations, and advocate for education and resources for others to do the same,” Vredenburgh said. “It is only when women and girls are seen as fully equal and deserving of opportunity that the biases too often at the root of gender-based violence will cease.”
According to UNICEF, a lack of education is most strongly associated with justifying violence against girls and women. Educating girls on what rights they have as both a child and a female is imperative when living in a world full of gender disparities. For example, Plan International’s Because I Am a Girl campaign supports girls in pursuing education as part of their rights as children. The organization also helps both girls and boys organize youth groups to advocate for their rights, which are globally defined by the United Nations.

According to the United Nations, girls have a right to safety, health and education. The United Nations now has to propose new goals for the next 15 years to replace the Millennium Development Goals. By 2030, these new Sustainable Development goals are supposed to become reality. Since 2015 didn’t bring the changes needed to end gender inequality, the United Nations is proposing similar goals for the upcoming 15 years, some of which could help address resilient gender disparities. These goals include to:

  • End poverty
  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everyone
  • Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education
  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for everyone
  • Reduce inequality within and among countries

Educating girls on their rights will help them achieve them, which is why girls like Nobel Prize laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai are working with girls who dream big. As Malala once said, “For my brothers it was easy to think about the future. They can be anything they want. But for me it was hard, and for that reason I wanted to become educated and empower myself with knowledge.”

Posted or updated: 10/5/2015 11:00:00 PM
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Meet your Congressional representatives in your district or contact them through the Congressional switchboard (202-224-3121). Urge them to support the following bills.

  • 21st Century STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Minorities Act (H.R. 2773) would provide grants to local educational agencies to encourage girls and underrepresented minorities to pursue studies and careers in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.
  • Girls Count Act of 2015 (S.802 & H.R.2100) would urge other countries to prevent discrimination against girls in gaining access to birth certificates; and support programs and key ministries to increase property rights, social security, home ownership, land tenure security, inheritance rights, access to education, and economic and entrepreneurial opportunities for women and girls.
  • International Violence Against Women Act of 2015 (H.R.1340 & S.713) would create a U.S. global strategy to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.
  • Candace’s Law (H.R.64) would make the sentencing more severe for persons who commit an act of domestic violence in the presence of minor children.