In 2012, the United Nations declared October 11 as International Day of the Girl, a day dedicated to highlighting and addressing the needs and challenges girls face and to promote empowerment. In her 2013 speech at the United Nations Youth Takeover, Malala Yousafzai said “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” Gender disparities are prevalent around the world, and even more so in rural areas and conflict zones. Globally, women make up two-thirds of illiterate people, earn less money and are far less likely to own land than men. Each year of secondary school education that girls receive is correlated with an 18 percent increase in her future earning power. Studies show that when women are educated, they give birth to fewer children, have healthier pregnancies and are able to provide a better life for their children.
A key player in the effort to improve the lives and well-being of girls is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Despite its lack of US funding, the UNFPA continues its work on several initiatives designed to close the gender gap and empower girls.
Ending childhood marriages and keeping girls in school
Approximately one in three girls will get married before the age of 18 in developing countries, the majority of whom live in rural and remote areas. Not only is child marriage a violation of human rights, but it also has harmful consequences that threaten girls’ lives and health.
Girls who leave school to get married are less likely to return to school, risking their education and future career prospects. Additionally, girls who are married in adolescence face greater risks during pregnancy and childbirth and are more likely to contract HIV.
The UNFPA is working in several countries to end childhood marriage by educating governments and communities on the consequences of childhood marriage. The UNFPA has called on governments to enact national legislation to raise the age of marriage to the age of 18, and encouraged communities to keep girls in school.
Educating communities on the reproductive health needs of girls
The stigma around female sexuality and menstruation often prevents girls from receiving important, factual information about their reproductive health. Girls are at a greater risk of reproductive health complications than boys, making them two to four times more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection than their male counterparts. Additionally, girls who give birth under the age of 15 are more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s.
The UNFPA has partnered with local NGOs and governments to create programs that target vulnerable adolescent girls. These programs are designed to enable adolescents to gain understanding of their bodies through comprehensive sexual education, expand reproductive health information and reproductive health counseling.
Providing access to contraception
When girls are able to prevent unwanted pregnancies and finish school, they are more likely to achieve economic growth and equity. In Uganda, nearly a quarter of girls have a child by the age of 19, forcing them to focus on raising their child rather than continuing their education.
The UNFPA is the largest multilateral provider of contraceptive supplies. The family planning services and contraception that the UNFPA provides has lowered maternal mortality and reduced the number of unintended pregnancies, and empowered girls to continue their education and seek employment opportunities.
Ending female genital mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a human rights violation that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and has no health benefits. The procedures can cause severe bleeding, problems urinating, infections, complications in childbirth and death.
The UNFPA is working in communities that practice FGM to educate citizens about its harmful impact on girls, and to encourage governments to forbid the practice. Additionally, the UNFPA is training health care providers to treat women and girls who have undergone FGM. Thanks to their efforts, by 2012 1,839 communities accounting for 6,337,912 individuals publicly declared abandonment of FGM.
As the largest funder of international family planning aid, the United States has historically provided financial support to the UNFPA. However, Donald Trump reinstated the Global Gag Rule and ended U.S. funding to the UNFPA in 2017. It’s clear to see the positive impact that UNFPA has had on people’s lives around the world. The programs implemented by the UNFPA have created momentum in the effort to protect and empower girls.
On International Day of the Girl, stand up for girls worldwide by telling your elected officials to support UNFPA and its work to improve the lives of girls around the world.