A Time for Alarm about the World’s Girls

International Day of the Girl
“We are girls club representatives and we have rescued six girls from child marriage last year.” (Left to right) Weynhareg Embiale and Enatnesh Tefere of Wengi primary school, Zigem, Amhara region. (Flickr / Unicef Ethiopia)

This International Day of the Girl is a day for concern.

Every year on October 11 we celebrate girls for being their wonderful selves, with the right to thrive and to realize their utmost potential. Girls represent our future: full of promise, insight and keen awareness of what makes their families and communities special and what they most need, our girls hold in their minds and their bodies our hope of a more beautiful and equitable world to come. 

Yet this year, from war zones to refugee settings to the countryside to poor urban neighborhoods, girls all over the globe are at risk.  

The lack of safe shelter—where a girl can live, sleep, study, without fear of violence, harassment, or infection—is true in all these venues. Also absent is even the most basic infrastructure, from safe water to safe sanitation, streets, markets and schools where, if open at all during these treacherous COVID times, are even more prone to sexual violence, intimidation, and infection than one’s home.  

We need to worry about those girls whose families have moved from crowded, costly cities back to their native or ancestral districts: Will those families take care to continue to invest in their daughters’ education? Or will they put them to work in the fields, as likely happened to their mothers and their rural cousins? 

How many fathers will revert to traditional practice and marry off their daughters, whether for a dowry or to be freed of the burden of feeding and educating another child? 

Free for now of pressure from educators, NGOs, even law enforcement, families across India, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Central America and elsewhere that never wholly embraced girls’ rights have felt free to return to harmful cultural practices, dramatically increasing the numbers of early marriages and teen motherhood even as enrollments and graduation rates decline. 


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But with so many clinics closed or focused only on COVID care, the lack of access to accurate sexual and reproductive health information, contraception, gynecological and prenatal care, even to menstrual hygiene products, have put girls and young women at risk of infection, unwanted pregnancy, having low birthweight babies, and maternal mortality, all of which have seen precipitous rises during the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, shutdown school systems with no clear re-open date, such as in Kenya, which recently denied academic credit for the entire 2019-20 school year, have frustrated countless fiercely determined young women who managed to complete their school work but who now may be forced into the workforce or to marry well before they had planned. 

And where girls have remained in school, but “school” remains virtual, reliable access to the internet remains an obstacle, as is finding a safe place to study, with school buildings, universities, public libraries, and community centers largely still closed.

Across the U.S., homeless girls, daughters of migrant farmers, and girls in immigrant detention are not only at grave risk of sexual and other forms of violence and COVID infection; they also risk losing out on months and months of academic, social, and emotional learning, with possibly tragic consequences.

And across the globe, with the rarest of exceptions, girls with special needs are left behind, with even the best-intentioned educators challenged to work intimately but remotely with each child, while trying to manage large virtual classrooms as well as in-person ones, often simultaneously.

From Syria to Gaza to Uganda to Zimbabwe to the Americas, our girls are in real and imminent danger.

This Girls’ Day, let’s concentrate on that. 

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About

Dr. Susan M. Blaustein is the Founder and Executive Director of WomenStrong International, which finds, funds, nurtures, and shares women-driven solutions to transform lives in urban communities.