What if girls everywhere were able to decide their own paths in life?
It sounds simple enough. But for millions of girls across the world, their futures have already been written for them. And that future is bleak.
1. They’ll be child brides, instead of students, and get pregnant before they’re ready.
"At my age, I know I may be married if schools do not open. In our community, I can be married to anyone my parents feel okay with.” Martha, South Sudan
In South Sudan, more than half of girls marry before they turn 18. A combination of growing food insecurity and school closures has led to an increase in child marriages, as families are desperately trying to make ends meet.
Martha, 13, has been out of school since March 2020, when the country’s first COVID-19 cases were confirmed. Food is scarce and her mother worries about providing for her family. “Things are hard,” she says. “If I have nothing left, I will send her to marriage so that I can concentrate on raising her siblings.”
The longer a girl is out of school, the less likely it is that she will ever return. Before the pandemic, 130 million girls were out of school. Now, COVID-19 threatens to halt the education of 11 million more, putting them at greater risk for harmful practices like child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, which can literally be a matter of life or death. The leading cause of death for girls ages 15-19 is complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.
For many girls, school is more than just a key to a better future. It’s a lifeline.
2. They’ll get sick without access to clean water, and won’t be able to manage their periods.
“Only girls who can afford to buy sanitary pads could go to school and pursue their education. The rest have no such opportunity. They have to stay at home, even if they have to sit for an examination, they cannot do that unless they have sanitary pads.” Worke, Ethiopia
Life is difficult for all refugees, especially during a pandemic, but adolescent girls like 14-year-old Worke face unique challenges that are often overlooked — like managing their periods without access to safe bathrooms or period products. Refugee girls like Worke are also at higher risk for assault, marriage, trafficking and never returning to school.
When families have to choose between food and pads, the choice is simple. Girls miss days of school when they have their period, some dropping out entirely.
For many girls and women, COVID-19 has made period products even less affordable, as the pandemic has driven up the cost through shortages and disrupted supply chains. This is especially true when girls like Worke are forced to flee their homes and settle in overcrowded camps or informal settlements, where access to information, sanitary products and safe toilet facilities is even more limited.
3. They’ll experience gender-based violence, and be prevented from making decisions about their own bodies.
“In our village, every day we hear about accidents that happen to girls due to female genital mutilation … I dream of a world free of FGM. I dream of leading an awareness initiative about the danger of female genital mutilation among middle and high school girls, so that they will know how to convince their parents. With time, there will be a bigger change and hopefully an end to the practice.” Shamaa, Egypt
It is feared that an additional 2 million girls could undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) by 2030 as a result of the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced girls to spend more time at home and less time in school, placing many at greater risk of gender-based violence.
FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality and an extreme form of discrimination against girls and women. There is no medical justification for the harmful practice, but there are many long- and short-term health risks including severe bleeding, problems urinating, infertility, problems with sex and childbirth and mental health issues.
4. They’ll never know what it’s like to pursue their own dreams.
"I believe that girls can change the world, make a better world for everyone, but we need the support of others. Because we girls are brave warriors." Maria, Bolivia
Growing up, 18-year-old Maria was often underestimated, simply because she was a girl. Now, she hosts a radio program that advocates for women’s empowerment and gender equality. "My purpose is to talk about the inequality that we as girls and adolescents suffer,” she explains. "Plan International helped me learn new skills, feel unique, increase my self-esteem, and have access to spaces where I have a voice and a vote; to be heard by different people and to be in places where I never thought I could go."
Young leaders like Maria are leading the way, but they can’t do it alone. They have the power to make their dreams come true — and to change the world for the better. We can’t let their voices be silenced.
Time is running out
COVID-19 is reversing decades of progress for gender equality. Child marriage, trafficking and violence are all on the rise. Every three seconds, a girl drops out of school. In the next hour, 1,583 girls will become pregnant unintentionally because they’ve lost health care. By the end of the day, 33,000 girls will be forced to throw away their futures and get married.
Every day, these futures are becoming a reality for more and more girls. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can tell girls that their futures are theirs to decide. You can help them stay in the classroom, where they belong, instead of being forced to marry. And, you can make sure they’re the ones making the decisions about their bodies.
You can stop the setback and help girls rewrite their futures today. But we must act now.