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Women and Girls in the World Canít Afford to Wait

Photo courtesy of Plan staff.
Photo courtesy of Plan staff.
March 24, 2010

By: Audrey Bracey Deegan


Audrey Bracey Deegan is interim president and chief executive of Plan USA. In this editorial, she calls on world leaders, non-governmental organizations, individuals and the media to raise the amount of attention paid to the severe plight of women and girls worldwide.


Fifteen years after the United Nation’s Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action began to reshape global action on women’s issues, the situation for women and girls remains both dire and unrecognized as a key area for state investment. In a recent speech on the progress of women’s lives to delegates during the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, remarked emphatically that “equality and opportunity are inalienable rights,” and that we must “pledge renewed determination for the future of equal rights, equal opportunities and progress for all.” Unfortunately, he exited the session immediately following his speech, missing the opportunity to hear from invited global experts who commented on the harsh reality of women’s lives across the world, and provided possible solutions.

Of the one billion people living in extreme poverty, 70% are women and girls, 20 million of whom never go to school. Just recently I travelled to Burkina Faso to witness the progress Plan International is making on improving access to education for girls. The opportunity cost of girls’ school attendance for households, which includes lost farming, lost labor or delayed bride price, prevents many families from sending girls to school. Primary school enrollment rates in Burkina Faso are some of the lowest in the world—with a 25% completion rate for girls. Just one year into implementation of our program in Burkina Faso geared at mentoring, literacy and mobilization campaigns focused on the value of education, we were able to raise attendance rates for girls to 95% in the communities where we work. In a 2003 speech, Kofi Annan stated, “There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. If we want to succeed in our efforts to build a more healthy, peaceful and equitable world, the classrooms of the world have to be filled with girls as well as boys.”

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the “Women in the World” conference hosted by the Daily Beast and the United Nations Foundation where inspiring women from all over the world met to share their experiences and discuss the daily struggles that persist for girls and women in their communities. Edna Adan Ismail, the first qualified Somali nurse-midwife, shared her experience undergoing a female circumcision and the work she’s doing to improve women’s health in the region with State Department Undersecretary Maria Otero and Tostan founder and anti-genital cutting activist, Molly Melching. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep, portrayed Northern Ireland civil-rights leader Inez McCormack in the Vital Voices play, Seven, and Cherie Blair discussed the significant role cell phones can have in improving women’s health, access to information and economic well-being.

While there is no doubt that events like these raise awareness around the myriad of issues plaguing the future of women and girls across the world, it is not enough. We must do more than merely share our stories. Each of us has seen the power that educating girls can have, but individuals and organizations committed to the betterment of girls must connect to create a larger, more powerful movement to counter the weight put on girls not to succeed. World leaders will not heed the warnings, suggestions and implications put forth unless there is continued and united pressure and support of policies and programs that will improve the lives of women and girls everywhere.

Prospects for dramatically improving the lives of women and girls are challenging, but not unattainable. Global leaders, NGO’s, the media and all of us as individuals have an obligation to raise the amount of attention paid to the severe plight of women and girls. By actively engaging in our communities and imparting the knowledge gained this weekend, we can galvanize institutions and individuals to ensure that girls and women will not have to wait any longer for the opportunities many of us take for granted.