Listening to Girls: The Key to Rebuilding Societies

Photo by UNICEF

The World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) marked the very first instance in which girls’ rights were resolutely addressed through a formal international agreement: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. On December 19, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170, declaring October 11th International Day of the Girl Child, a hallmark date dedicated to a twofold purpose of recognizing the unique challenges girls face around the world and advocating for their ability to exercise fundamental human rights despite rampant barriers. The United Nations recognizes the magnitude of International Day of the Girl, affirming, “If effectively supported during the adolescent years, girls have the potential to change the world – both as the empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, mothers, entrepreneurs, mentors, household heads, and political leaders. An investment in realizing the power of adolescent girls upholds their rights today and promises a more equitable and prosperous future, one in which half of humanity is an equal partner in solving the problems of climate change, political conflict, economic growth, disease prevention, and global sustainability.”

The theme of this year’s Day of the Girl, “My voice, our equal future,” is especially fitting. Amidst a once-in-a-century-pandemic, trends have suggested that gender inequalities are swiftly widening, though societies have only been allowed a meager glimpse into the ensuing repercussions due to the sheer lack of data disaggregated by gender and age. In response to these crucial yet overlooked statistics, UN Women urges governments to collect and promote open access to timely and quality disaggregated data, writing, “As the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare gender and other enduring fault lines of inequality, the limited availability of data is leaving many questions unanswered. The disaggregation of data on cases, fatalities and economic and social impact by sex, age and other key characteristics – such as ethnicity and race, migratory status, disability and wealth – is vital to understanding the pandemic’s differential impacts.” Without disaggregated data, societies markedly lack a true comprehension of the acute challenges that marginalized communities face alongside their bearing on the status of girls, leaving governments unable to protect these vulnerable populations. After all, this data is the cornerstone of our access to girls’ voices, and without it, societies risk rolling back hard-fought advances and losing sight of “our equal future.”

The minimal disaggregated data that are available demonstrate stark economic, social, health, and violence-related issues that are disproportionately affecting girls as a result of COVID-19, and such trends are unquestionably far more drastic than the data suggests.

Economically, girls have suffered both directly and indirectly as a result of COVID-19. Women have seen far more job losses and pay cuts than their male counterparts. Given what we know about the extent to which women reinvest their income in their families and communities (90% of overall earnings compared to 35% for men), families and communities at large will indisputably see a sharp decline in resources, and girls will bear the brunt of this burden. Aside from the asymmetrical increase in job loss and income reduction given the vast allocation of women throughout the hardest hit sectors, like the informal economy, the double-bind that women and girls have faced at home has also been exacerbated. UN Women spells out this global issue, citing, “Many women have found themselves juggling increased unpaid care work while contending with reduced income, and in some cases also trying to do full-time paid work in crowded households.” Prior to COVID-19, girls were spending 40% more time performing unpaid chores than boys. Scarce family resources compounded with household responsibilities falling primarily on the shoulders of girls, aberrates at-home schooling, where available, from a necessity to a quixotic luxury. Given the pivotal role girls’ education plays in gender equality at large, these trends will have more far-reaching consequences, perpetuating a detrimental cycle.  

Education has proven to be a paramount factor in all realms of the empowerment of girls, directly influencing their economic, social and even political stature. Today, millions of children and youth are not receiving an education as a result of classroom closures and lack of access to technology for remote learning. Where certain communities have reopened their schools, attendance remains low. Given the lack of disaggregated data, it’s difficult to know what portion of those currently out of the classroom are girls, but it’s quite plausible that they lead boys in absentee rates. Even before COVID-19, sending girls to school was seen as an economic burden to families, and often at odds with survival. That is, families either can’t afford the school fees or can’t spare the labor. With enduring classroom closures coupled with economic downturn, other pernicious practices like child trafficking, prostitution and arranged marriages have grown more rife. Melina Gates adds color to this disquieting trend in her book, Moment of Lift, maintaining, “When a family can receive money for marrying off a daughter, they have one fewer mouth to feed and more resources to help everyone else. When a family has to pay to marry off a daughter, the younger the girl, the less her family pays in a dowry. In both cases, the incentives strongly favor early marriage.” As families struggle through deeper poverty coupled with greater household and childcare responsibilities, girls will often be seen as an easy and necessary burden to lift from a household, which leaves not only their education at risk, but also their freedom and safety. To uphold progress that activists like Malala Yousafzai have made in the domain of girls’ education, we must ensure that our approach to schooling, both now and in the aftermath of COVID-19, is approached from a gendered lens.

Health-wise, there have been extensive reports surrounding lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. With the majority of health and medical resources diverted to the pandemic, routine care has witnessed a drastic decline. As UN Women cites, “… in 4 out of 10 countries in Europe and Central Asia, at least half of women in need of family planning services have experienced major difficulty accessing them since the pandemic began. In Asia and the Pacific, 60 per cent of women report face more barriers to seeing a doctor as a result of the pandemic. Although data and studies are still limited, early evidence indicates that COVID-19 has both direct and indirect effects on maternal mortality, with some estimates as high as 56,700 additional maternal deaths.” Prior to the pandemic, family planning was already a prevalent issue, with more than 200 million women in the developing world wanting contraceptives, but not having access to them. Alike each of the topics previously discussed, family planning holds direct influence over innumerous additional aspects of women’s rights. As Melinda Gates notes, “When women can decide whether and when to have children, it saves lives, promotes health, expands education, and creates prosperity – no matter what country in the world you’re talking about.”  It is therefore critical to maintain routine healthcare and reproductive services as non-negotiable facets to aid efforts around the world.

Violence against women, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse, has multiplied following stay-at-home mandates. Measures to shield women and girls from violence amid lockdown, where available, have seen immense challenges. These protections must be a standard part of government responses to any crisis, yet thus far, there has not been a united and effective approach from our leaders to combat this issue. Leaders need to ensure that shelters stay open as essential services, and repurpose unused spaces to provide shelter to the increased number of women and girls escaping abuse to allow for safe distancing amid this pandemic. Furthermore, hotlines and women’s rights organizations working on the front lines need more support than the uneven attempts we’ve seen, and a global lockdown is certainly not the time to curtail the protections these groups are fighting so ardently to provide. As UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said, “Girls under lockdown and out of school are highly vulnerable to harm. We cannot allow the current crisis to derail the future of an entire generation.”

In order to uphold the progress girls have rightfully earned, we must first understand the true gravity of the situation girls are facing. Widespread, readily available, disaggregated data will serve as a focal channel to illustrate where girls’ needs are being overlooked and how resources ought to be allocated to mend the chasm. After actively seeking out girls’ voices, we must then make space for them in decision-making. The world desperately needs women and girls to serve as architects behind response strategies, as they will be more likely to provide a lens that accounts for the economic, social, health, and violence-related issues discussed herein. Recognizing the needs of girls through gender disaggregated is only one piece of the equation; the other is cognizant and empathetic leadership that understands how to respond. While it’s apparent that we still have work to do, I remain optimistic. Girls already have a voice; we simply need to listen. With this simple and seamless advance, we will build a more equitable and bright world for everyone.

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