The following post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on September 8, 2014
A teenage girl in the UK or U.S. will probably be in school. She’ll be looking forward to a future of opportunity, supported by her family. She might reasonably dream of fulfilling work, or a marriage of her own choosing, or children if she wants them.
Not so for most teenage girls living in poorer parts of the world.
New research from Plan International shows the shocking truth about adolescent girls in developing countries. In one of the largest studies ever undertaken of its kind, we talked to 7,000 adolescent girls and boys in 11 countries about girls’ opportunities. The findings are overwhelming. These girls are some of the most disadvantaged people on earth.
Everywhere, girls told us how they work every day, striving to improve their lives and create a better future. Progress is being made. In general, girls today have more opportunities than their mothers had. For example, nearly half (48 percent) of the adolescent girls Plan spoke to said that girls “always” or “often” complete at least nine years of school. Some enjoy the strong support of their parents and teachers.
But the pace of change is unacceptably slow. Girls continue to face daily dangers and injustices that stunt their opportunities in life, for no other reason than because they are girls.
More shocking still, girls around the world described how they did not expect more. Their societies do not value them as much as boys. As a result, they do not value themselves. A girl in Cameroon put it vividly: “The girls are like servants of boys and men. Their issues don’t really matter.”
Over half (52 percent) of girls Plan spoke to said that adolescent girls “never” or “seldom” decide if they become pregnant. “We do not know how to avoid pregnancy. Nobody speaks to us of that,” said one adolescent girl from Paraguay. Pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death worldwide for girls aged 15 to 19. They are also a major reason why girls do not complete school. “They never have a single example [of] married girls who come to school after having a baby,” said one adolescent girl from Pakistan.
Nearly half (49 percent) of all adolescent girls involved in the study said that girls and boys “never” or “seldom” share household chores. “We are burdened with all household tasks. After marriage, we work even more,” said one adolescent girl from Egypt. Time spent on household chores is time away from education, play, and opportunity.
For many girls, marriage and pregnancy are not cause for celebration. 40 percent of the girls Plan spoke to said that girls “never” or “seldom” decide when they marry. “Some parents use their girl children to settle debts, thereby forcing them to get married to people they don’t love,” said one adolescent girl from Cameroon.
Violence against girls is frighteningly entrenched. Around the world, girls told us how they expect to be victims of violence and that this is seen as normal. They seldom feel free from violence at home, in communities, or at school. They experience sexual harassment, rape, and forced marriage, among many other forms of abuse.
“I just feel safe with my family, because no one else cares for us. Rape and kidnapping cases are a given,” said one adolescent girl from Nicaragua. “At home, we are sometimes sexually harassed by our relatives whom we can never report as they will be our guardians,” said one girl from Zimbabwe.
Plan is one of many organisations working to improve life for girls in developing countries. We have learned that while progress can and is being made, the issues are deep seated. Effective work takes sustained and sensitive efforts.
Progress depends on tackling entrenched norms about what it means to be a “good girl,” in preparation to be a “good woman.” This means working with people who are influential in local settings, like positive role models (men, teachers, and mothers), as well as helping girls to dream and achieve more.
It’s worth remembering that despite decades and centuries of activism, many girls still don’t enjoy the same opportunities as their brothers in wealthy countries.
This research is a startling reminder of the size of the mountain that girls, and we, still have to climb. We are taking it as a powerful wake up call. We must do more, together. Too many girls around the world still face a life of injustice and constraint. The issues are too big for any single organization or government to tackle. And they are too important and widespread to ignore.
We call on governments, development agencies, community leaders, and parents to work together to accelerate the pace of change for girls. We need to shape societies that release girls from their shackles, encourage their aspirations, and support them to fulfill their endless potential. These rights are enshrined in international conventions. We must redouble our efforts to make them reality for all girls around the world. And we must keep listening to them, to hear how we can do that better. It’s the least that they deserve.