How Do We Build a World Where Every Girl Can Thrive?

A young girl at the Sacred Heart School in Banket, Zimbabwe, on Nov. 10, 2016. (Christian Ender / Getty Images)

The world commemorates the 10th annual International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11, a day recognizing the unique challenges girls face. As the COVID-19 pandemic eases its grip on the globe, celebrating this day truthfully means asking ourselves: What must we do to ensure that all the world’s girls are free to attend school, acquire skills, and lead healthy, fulfilled lives?

Although the task may sound daunting, we can look to a record of achievement to spur us on: The nearly-two decades prior to the pandemic saw 82 million more girls in school, girls’ primary school enrollment up 65 percent, and a 25-percent increase in parity between girls and boys completing primary school, according to the Global Partnership for Education—all since 2002.

Yet 129 million girls are still shut out, with one in three adolescent girls from the poorest families having never set foot in a classroom, and 12 million under 18 forced to marry each year. Moreover, among the pandemic’s worst legacies has been its ravaging blow to these decades of progress, with 20 million additional secondary school-age girls who may never return to school, according to Malala Fund.

Today’s girls, though, are not to be deterred: They are still dreaming, and dreaming big, which they made clear in a recent virtual convening of teen girls and young women working with two WomenStrong International grantee partners, Girl Up Initiative Uganda and The Girls’ Legacy, in Zimbabwe.

Girl Up and Girls’ Legacy staff co-created this “cross-country collaborative call” to bring girls together to speak about challenges in their communities, what they’d change about girls’ status there, and their own dreams and aspirations.

“I want to see a society where young women and men are treated the same,” said Fortunate, 17, from Zimbabwe.

Doreen, her new 22-year-old virtual friend in Uganda, agreed: “It would make me happy for women in my community to know that they have the same rights and power, just like boys and men.”

These young women had other dreams too, about bodily autonomy and freedom. “Women and girls need to know when to say ‘no,’” said Doreen. Across the Zoom room, everyone nodded.

“I want to see change on the issue of child marriage,” said Hilda, a 21-year-old Zimbabwean, making clear that she wants “to see police and other actors acting to address this issue.”

It would make me happy for women in my community to know that they have the same rights and power, just like boys and men.

Doreen, 22

These girls are dreaming well beyond childhood, as Ugandan teen Shadia made clear. “I want to see equality in leadership, and to see barriers broken for women to participate in leadership platforms.”

“I want to be a voice of the voiceless,” said Hellen, 15, also Ugandan, and every bit as ambitious.

For these young women, and millions more, it’s time we redouble our efforts. We know if every girl finished primary school, maternal deaths would decrease by two-thirds. And if all girls finished high school, child marriage would be reduced by two-thirds. We know, too, that every literate mother’s child is 50 percent more likely to be immunized, to live past age 5, and is twice as likely to attend school.

We dare not squander this boundless potential—for healthy families, for innovation and entrepreneurship, for visionary leadership, and, with the higher lifetime earnings of educated women participating fully in the workforce, for a boost to the world’s economies by up to $30 trillion.

WomenStrong partners are also advancing girls’ education in Afghanistan, Guatemala, Malawi and Peru, utilizing locally-targeted strategies for engaging with community members, educators, education ministries, and of course, the girls themselves.

Our partners have taught us there are many things we can do—not only as nonprofits and international development agencies, but also as parents and ordinary citizens—from educating and advocating for our own children, to supporting and advocating for affordable nutrition, safe schools and gender-sensitive teacher training for everyone’s children.

To multiply the impact of this effort, as the world continues to emerge from the pandemic, Malala Fund has called on governments to:

  • reopen schools safely and inclusively;
  • assist girls with alternative, remote and catch-up learning;
  • address instances of violence and abuse whenever and wherever they occur;
  • protect and increase gender-responsive education funding and policies;  and
  • build back education systems to be “gender equal.”

This year’s theme for the International Day of the Girl is “Our time is now, our rights, our future.”

When our partners participating in a cross-country convening reflected on what the theme meant to them “as a girl,” the young women’s responses could not have been clearer, or more united.

“Our tomorrow is now!” said Hilda from Zimbabwe.

“It is our time to fight for our future and our rights,” said 17-year-old Ugandan Shadia.

“My dream should be able to shake the world,” said 23-year-old Clare, also in Uganda.

It’s high time we listen to them, and high time we rededicate ourselves, this year, and over the years to come, as the world re-emerges, to reimagining and rebuilding a world and a future in which these bold young women’s dreams can come true.

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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.