How the World Is Letting Girls Fall Behind

Girls everywhere deserve access to knowledge, opportunity and safety.

Girls attend school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Oct. 23, 2021. (Herman Emmanuel / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Achieving gender equality and empowering girls is a necessary piece of the puzzle for a prosperous global future. But as a result of COVID-19, rising climate change events, humanitarian crises and an increased backlash against sexual and reproductive health and rights, the U.N. announced last year that progress on attaining gender equality had been set back by a staggering 300 years.

If current trends continue:

The world is letting girls fall behind at an alarming rate. This International Day of the Girl, the world must reassess its commitments to girls everywhere—for a flourishing world and, most importantly, for the individual health, rights and well-being of each girl, no matter what. 

Girls will reach their fullest potential when global governments comprehensively prioritize their education, safety, health and autonomy.

We know that education, safety and self-determination are fundamental to girls’ ability to broaden their opportunities, protect their health and empower them to plan their own lives. However, barriers to societal participation, comprehensive healthcare and the ability to live free from violence ultimately stand in the way of that realization. 

School—which teaches fundamental skills, builds confidence, empowers decision-making and provides a refuge away from home—is a critical instrument for personal growth and gender equality. Educating girls also contributes to a more peaceful, equitable and robust society. Yet, 130 million girls do not currently have access to education, and less than half of the world’s countries have achieved gender parity in primary education.

Girls in Afghanistan have been forbidden from attending secondary school and higher education institutions since the Taliban’s seizure of the country in 2021 and reports of depression and suicide are now widespread among adolescent girls, particularly among those prevented from accessing education. This education ban, among other prohibitions placed on women and girls, is a barefaced violation of human rights, actively preventing girls in Afghanistan from accessing their greatest potential.

The ability to live free from violence, including gender-based violence (GBV), is a human right. Without refuge from GBV, girls are subject to acute harm, face long-term physical, emotional and mental consequences and are prevented from fully and equally participating in society.

Girls in conflict zones and humanitarian settings often face separation from their families, are forced to drop out of school and lose vital community ties, leading to a heightened danger of violence and exploitation. 

Early, forced and child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)—two forms of gender-based violence—are greatly harmful traditional practices that impact girls around the world.

Globally, more than 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM/C, or the complete or partial removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. 2 million more cases are projected over the next ten years. Effects of FGM/C include but are not limited to severe pain and bleeding, chronic infections, menstrual problems, a heightened risk for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and a heightened risk for complications related to pregnancy and delivery. The procedure has absolutely no health benefits. 

Meanwhile, one in five young girls are married before the age of 18, with 100 million more cases of child marriage projected over the next 10 years. Child brides face higher rates of sexual violence, higher rates of domestic violence and risk dropping out of school. Child brides also suffer increased complications in pregnancy and childbirth and higher rates of contracting HIV/AIDS.

The impacts of harmful traditional practices like FGM/C and early, forced and child marriage limit a girl’s ability to live safe, healthy, fulfilling, lives full of opportunity. These forms of gender-based violence are currently affecting millions of girls, and the impacts of COVID-19 stands to even further threaten years of progress made toward eradicating gender-based violence.    

To further girls’ empowerment, access to comprehensive sex education that is inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations, as well as youth-friendly services and policies, is a must.

When girls are enabled to make conscientious decisions, advocate for their own health and stay armed with knowledge about healthy relationships and one’s own body, they can stand on equal footing with their peers. When healthcare services are delivered and policies are written to reflect the lived experiences of girls, barriers to equity can fall.

Recently, countries such as Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe have either revoked discriminatory policies or passed supportive policies that allow pregnant students and adolescent mothers to continue their studies under some conditions. It’s a step in the right direction toward equal access for girls. 

To ensure that we are holistically investing in girls’ wellbeing, we cannot let a single right fall to the wayside. Girls will reach their fullest potential when global governments comprehensively prioritize their education, safety, health and autonomy. Doing so will result in the true protection of individual girls and progress toward achieving gender equality and empowerment worldwide.

Already, girls around the world are facing extreme barriers to equity and basic well-being. The impacts of the COVID-19 virus, global climate change and an increasing attack against sexual and reproductive health and rights only exacerbate these concerns that fall squarely on the shoulders of young girls. Girls deserve access to knowledge, opportunity and safety.

This International Day of the Girl and beyond, global governments cannot fall back on their promises to protect the health and rights of girls. Right now, we’re failing girls everywhere, and the clock keeps ticking. 

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Rachel Marchand, MPH, is the public policy manager and podcast producer for the rePROs Fight Back initiative, where she develops content and strategy related to international and domestic sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice.