A ray of hope for girls

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION -

ANNE-BIRGITTE ALBRECTSEN Maya, a 16-year-old girl from Do­lakha dis­trict in Nepal, is al­ready a mother and a wife. Nepal has the sec­ond high­est ado­les­cent preg­nancy rate in South Asia, and it is es­ti­mated that one in ten girls there will marry be­low the age of 15. A large pro­por­tion of them will drop out of school.

But Maya has been helped to go back to class, where she at­tends an Ado­les­cent Friendly Space for girls aged 12-18. Of the 22 girls in Maya’s group, half are mar­ried; some are preg­nant, while oth­ers are moth­ers al­ready. At the end of March, Maya took her school leav­ing ex­ams and hopes to con­tinue on to higher ed­u­ca­tion. She knows that will be harder as a young mar­ried wo­man with a child. But she is us­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence to raise the con­fi­dence of other, younger girls: “As a girl, you al­ready face many bar­ri­ers. It is bet­ter to fo­cus on your own goals and com­plete your stud­ies.” Maya’s story shows how to go beyond de­scrib­ing the tough re­al­ity, to chang­ing it. We can be led by an op­ti­mistic re­al­ism, fo­cused on the power of girls rather than their plight, and on en­abling girls to learn, lead, de­cide and thrive. The world in­creas­ingly recog­nises the im­por­tance of se­cur­ing the rights of girls, re­flected in the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals adopted last year by the UN. Now is the time to gal­vanise the move­ment for girls’ rights that has emerged in re­cent years, to be­come ever more im­pa­tient for change. Bet­ter is pos­si­ble.

The con­fi­dence to de­cide for them­selves is crit­i­cal to girls im­prov­ing their own lives, but also to ac­cel­er­at­ing progress more widely. Gema is 17 years old, one of over 2,300 ado­les­cents tak­ing part in the ‘Teenage Preg­nancy-free Zone’ project in Ecuador. It pro­motes em­pow­er­ment, par­tic­i­pa­tion and self-es­teem to lower the high rates of teenage preg­nancy. She be­came in­volved when she was 14, struck by the num­ber of class­mates drop­ping out of school when they be­came preg­nant. With a few friends she went door to door to speak to moth­ers and fathers to change minds lit­tle by lit­tle. Her de­ter­mi­na­tion took her to New York to par­tic­i­pate in the an­nual Com­mis­sion on the Sta­tus of Women at the United Na­tions; now Gema is go­ing to univer­sity to study medicine.

So change is hap­pen­ing, but it is painfully slow. Imag­ine if our ap­proach to child preg­nancy was driven by the same ur­gency as the re­sponse to po­lio; if we saw the de­nial of girls’ right to ed­u­ca­tion with the same fo­cus. How much nearer to our goals would we be? Progress re­mains stub­bornly slow be­cause we lack the num­bers to track it. There are no re­li­able world­wide fig­ures on the num­ber of girls un­der 15 years of age who be­come preg­nant each year. We do not ad­e­quately mea­sure the num­ber of girls who leave school due to mar­riage, preg­nancy, or sex­ual vi­o­lence; mil­lions of girls are left in­vis­i­ble.

Only real data, rel­e­vant to girls, can en­able us to see how fast progress is be­ing made to end early and forced mar­riage, to achieve gen­der par­ity in se­condary ed­u­ca­tion, to abol­ish fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion and to en­sure girls have the same job op­por­tu­ni­ties as boys. We need to hear the voice of girls like Gema and Maya: girls with in­sight into the bar­ri­ers, with ex­pe­ri­ence of over­com­ing them. The peo­ple who are re­ally go­ing to change things, are the girls them­selves. —Via email

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