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Why Girls’ Voices Matter

Posted 08 October 2021 in EMpower News, Publications   |   Share

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By Cynthia Steele, President & CEO of EMpower—The Emerging Markets Foundation

A few years ago, girls around the world seemed to be experiencing an upswing; in many ways, they were more “empowered” than ever before. Between 1995 and 2018, 180 million more girls enrolled in primary and secondary school globally. More girls continued their education, and more had access to jobs and work opportunities. At the same time, the prevalence of child marriage decreased.

But today, largely because of the COVID pandemic, much of this hard fought-for progress is now in jeopardy. Economic, health, and social systems around the world are struggling to respond and rebound. And deep-rooted gender inequities are only intensifying and worsening.

According to UNICEF, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of child marriage as a result of the pandemic. Worldwide, 11 million girls may never return to school. Girls and young women, who have been confined to their homes more because of the pandemic, are at increased risk for gender-based violence. In many places, teenage pregnancy rates are rising. In Latin America, schools have been closed for so long and livelihood opportunities shattered that young people—especially girls and young women—are at risk of becoming a “lost generation.” The pandemic could undo a decade of economic progress for women in the region.

COVID is not the only threat and determining factor. In Afghanistan, girls and young women are in serious peril because of the Taliban’s return to power. Every day there is news of another basic human right being denied them: their pathways to school, work, and public life are being abruptly cut off. The Taliban has warned that in school certain subjects may be off limits to girls, and they will be barred from studying with boys. And young women have been largely excluded from higher education and the workforce.

The picture is bleak. But there are also strong glimmers of hope. In Afghanistan, our partner, the Afghan Institute of Learning, is determined to continue to provide a safe space and education for girls and women. The organisation’s fearless leader, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, recently said: Wherever we have schools now, we will have schools next week or next month, or next year….While we are afraid, we are not defeated.”

Dr. Yacoobi’s words inspire us all—and no doubt a whole generation of girls and young women—to speak up and out. Over the years, I have myself seen the power of girls and young women to be their own best advocates and believe that we should heed their voices. They are the experts on their own lives.

Earlier this year, EMpower—The Emerging Markets Foundation conducted exciting participatory action research with girls in India called COVID In Her Voice. We identified and trained 25 girl leaders throughout urban India to interview more than 150 of their peers and learn more about how the pandemic had affected their lives, including their education, mental health, and relationships. The girl leaders were involved every step of the way; they helped design the survey, define the selection criteria, and analyse the results.

The girls they interviewed shared that their lives had been negatively impacted by COVID-19, with the crisis exacerbating pre-existing inequities. Pressure to marry early, increased chores, depression, and limited access to education and work opportunities are among the major challenges they faced. But not only did the girls identify these issues, they also came up with solutions and made recommendations on how the government and organisations can ensure a more equitable recovery.

Among their recommendations was to create more safe spaces for girls and young women who are at risk of domestic violence and to set up digital hubs for girls to get and stay connected to sources of information, education, and support networks.

This research was unique in that it was girl-led and girl-centred, disrupting the traditional power dynamic of researcher and subject. And we saw first-hand how giving girls the opportunity to speak for themselves can have profound impact.

This International Day of the Girl we recognise and celebrate the inherent power of girls and young women to be the leaders of their own lives. They should be given—or indeed taking—the proverbial seat at the table.

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