The United Nations has declared today the world’s first International Day of the Girl Child. Events are being held around the world to publicise many aspects of girls’ lives and education features prominently.
The large global NGO Plan is publishing its annual review Because I am a Girl. This year it focuses on education, drawing on interviews with girls around the world, analysis of statistical data, and assessments of research, including some I have conducted with colleagues in a number of countries in Africa. The report brings out the challenges girls face to gain access to school, to be treated with dignity while they study, and to use their education to secure an adulthood where they are safe and have lives they value.
For example, many girls still struggle to have their decisions about health, sex and reproductive rights taken seriously. In many schools there is little active learning for girls or boys, and teachers have little knowledge or training in gender equality. Teenage girls who choose unconventional careers like Gloria Joy, the 18-year old trainee auto mechanic at Juba technical high school in South Sudan, interviewed in the Plan report, face multiple barriers. Gloria, despite her schooling and inspiration to work in this field, had to struggle to get a loan to open a business, be accepted as an apprentice, and attract customers. Luck, information and persistence helped her. But for many there are not such happy endings.
The celebration of the first International Day of the Girl Child is touched with poignancy because of the headlines concerning one 14 year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan. She was shot in the head and neck on Tuesday, while she sat with classmates on a school bus in Mingora, in the Swat district. A spokesman for a Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban has claimed responsibility. All over Pakistan there has been an eruption of anger at this attack with many messages supporting Malala’s aspirations for schooling for girls.
Among her campaigning activities, Malala wrote a blog for the BBC’s Urdu service under the pseudonym Gul Makai (“cornflower”) and described her classmates’ fears that their educations would be abruptly stopped. She was awarded Pakistan’s first National Peace Award and had recently talked of setting up a vocational institute for marginalised girls in her area.
Malala’s bravery in speaking up, even though she had fears for her safety, is a clear reminder of the need for us to do more to help girls stay in school longer – too many of the poorest and most discriminated against leave with barely any experience of education. International Days like this are important for their symbolic significance, but they also remind us there is so much we do not know about the schooling of girls, their relations with their families and societies, the ways in which gender connects with other inequalities.
Around the world many governments, teachers’ organisations, small and large NGOs, employers, and institutions like universities are joining with UN organisations to promote gender equality and girls’ rights to education. The IOE is part of this. This might be the first Day of the Girl Child, but it should not be the last of the enormous effort needed. On International Day of the Girl Child, please do whatever you can to support these aspirations.