Sex workers, child brides, garbage pickers – this is the reality for hundreds and thousands of girls throughout Asia.
Without the opportunity to attend school, seek support and counseling, or have a choice in the decisions that most impact their lives, many girls find themselves powerless, voiceless, and trapped in poverty.
“We have spent most of our lives in the shadows,” said 17-year-old Kiran from India.
While conditions are improving in many parts of the world, the reality for teenage girls and young women in many countries remains disturbing.
One in five adolescent girls worldwide are out of school and 35 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual or physical violence. If the prevalence of child marriage continues at this rate, it is estimated that 140 million girls will be married by 2020.
Determined to change these statistics, meet the teenage girls from around Asia and the Pacific who are challenging the norms around gender-based discrimination and human rights. They are advocating for girls’ rights and gender equality, and are committed to creating a better future for women and girls worldwide.
These girls have become young female role models and activists in their own communities, using their own personal stories and struggles to set an example and demonstrate that change can happen anytime, anywhere.
Seventeen-year-old Kiran and her friends spent most of their lives in the shadows. Often neglected in favor of their brothers, they watched most girls in their small, conservative village in India get married and then be confined to their homes.
A few years ago, Plan International began working in their community and developed clubs for adolescent girls. These clubs served as safe spaces for young girls to share their thoughts and experiences, to engage with their peers on issues they faced, and to receive training on how to tackle these issues.
Through discussions, a pressing concern soon emerged: forced and early marriage. Kiran and her friends were determined to put an end to this issue and began advocating with their neighbors for equality and education and against gender discrimination, among other things.
Through these activities, Kiran came across a 16-year-old girl who was forcibly removed from school and married against her will. Kiran and her friends approached the girl’s parents, who refused to listen and cooperate, even forbidding them from visiting their daughter.
The girls approached the local government to take immediate action and stop the wedding. This situation resonated with the entire village, and culminated in a stunning achievement: an announcement made by the village elders, that no underage girl in their community would ever be forced to marry again. Through their actions, Kiran and her friends have given 957 young girls in their village and all future generations a new lease on life.
“This is only the beginning,” she said.
Dressed in a traditional Timorese ‘tais’, 17-year-old Odelia joined 250 girls and women at Timor-Leste’s first ever Girls’ Conference in June 2016. The conference was made up of numerous workshops, which enabled girls to develop action plans as they pertain to education, health, protection, and participation. These plans will form part of a larger girls’ declaration.
Odelia went to the conference because she believes that girls should have equal rights. She believes that girls in her community are not seen as important, so she wants to make sure girls get more attention. She joined her peers to help draft the girls’ declaration.
The declaration sets out six priorities covering access to higher education and health, the right to be heard, equal opportunities, the right to learn, lead, decide, and stop discrimination and violence.
She joined a Child Rights Club in 2013 and then the local Women and Girls Forum, where she was trained in leadership and public speaking and learned how to engage in advocacy at senior government levels.
Since that time, she’s grown in confidence. Her ambition is to become a diplomat. Her dream is to one day become Timor-Leste’s Ambassador to Australia.
India is home to one of the largest child labor populations in the world. According to the Census of India in 2011, more than 8 million children go to work every day rather than going to school. Apart from living in inhospitable conditions, these children work seven days a week.
Sonia began collecting garbage at the age of eight.
“After my parents migrated to Delhi from Rajasthan, we thought our lives would change for the better,” she said. “But, struggling to overcome our financial situation, there was no other option but for me to start working.
“It was hard for me, especially because I thought that after moving to Delhi, I would get the chance to go to school and college. I struggled in the beginning to come to terms with this fact. But I never lost hope.”
Sonia soon came into contact with Plan, where she received counseling and was encouraged to return to school. Eventually, Sonia joined a local knowledge enhancement center and finally was able to enroll in a government school.
Sixteen-year-old Nurfahada recalls how a standoff in Mindanao, Southern Philippines disrupted the education of girls in the area and resulted in sexual violence.
“We felt, heard, and saw what happened during the Zamboanga siege,” she said. “Our classes were suspended for three months.”
“When there is conflict, girls are the most affected, just like what happened during the siege. Because everyone lived in a transitory site even if they don’t know each other, teenage pregnancy and sexual assault happened.
“Because of teenage pregnancy, girls are losing their passion in education. And, as an advocate, I want to serve as an inspiration and be a voice for the girls to lessen violence and stop teenage pregnancy.”
“Default”>Nurfahada went to the 4th Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last May to demand wider access to adolescent sexual and reproductive health.
She also joined the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, on stage in New York last year to call on world leaders to put girls’ rights at the heart of the global development agenda.