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My Voice, Our Equal Future! Joining the Chorus of Girls Who Are Speaking up for Change

Sister Udaya, Mahila Shikshan Kendra, India – IDG 2020 South Asia Challenge Winner. Credit: UNICEF/UN061998/Vishwanathan

NEW YORK, Nov 20 2020 (IPS) - Girls are change makers and world shapers! When girls speak up, they are a powerful force to be reckoned with.

This International Day of the Girl 2020 we listened to girl-led and girl-centered organizations from across South Asia and heard about how they have been empowering girls in their communities and at the forefront of advocating for #GenerationEquality on #DayoftheGirl.

The potential of adolescent girls in South Asia is limitless, yet they are one of the most marginalized and under-served groups of children. During emergencies, either girls’ vulnerabilities can be exacerbated, or girls’ agency and opportunities can be promoted. Adolescent girls are a high priority group for Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and UNICEF. By investing, supporting, empowering, and listening to girls, we can build a more equal world.

Here are some of the ways we can take action to address the issues facing girls in South Asia and support girls in harnessing the power of their voices to make a difference.

Leaving no girl behind
Girls in South Asia continue to face barriers to accessing a quality education. The region has some of the highest rates of girls and young women who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). Even before COVID-19, nearly 1 in 3 adolescent girls from the poorest households had never been to school. At the secondary level in crisis-affected contexts in South Asia, there are significant disparities between boys and girl’s enrolment rates, with boys nearly three times more likely to enroll in school than girls.

It is essential we take decisive action, with intent, to reach and engage girls, in both crisis-affected situations and developing contexts where negative gender norms prevail. With strong affirmative action, we can break the status quo, and ensure that girls do not continue to be under-served and marginalized.

    “Change is possible. We believe each girl is unique and has the potential to excel. We help girls improve their self-esteem to express their hopes to make decisions about their own lives. We are the voice for every girl, let’s create an equal future.”

Working together to build a more equal future
We cannot do this alone – girl-led and girl-centered cross-sectorial partners are key. When child protection, adolescent development and gender considerations are integrated into education and services they become holistic, safe, relevant and meaningful. Essential cross-sectorial work includes mitigating school safety risks; training all staff on gender responsive practices and gender-based violence; recruiting female teachers; providing unconditional cash transfers; offering life-skills groups tailored to adolescent girls; and, shifting the social norms that cause girls to be kept out of schools, which requires engaging with caregivers and religious and community leaders that have influence.

Building a versatile set of skills
Supporting adolescent girls to bridge the digital divide and gain 21st century skills is critical. This includes building life skills that can help girls to better navigate challenges and gain skills and support for employability. Transferable skills, such as stress reduction, emotional regulation, decision-making, goal setting, critical and creative thinking, conflict resolution and assertive communication help promote self-esteem and self-confidence that will last a lifetime.

In addition, adolescent girls must learn skills that match the demands of potential employers and the reality of the job market. Girls are far less likely to own digital devices, have access to internet or technology, and in turn have fewer opportunities to gain digital literacy skills. This also has significant implications for their employment prospects. For example, in the burgeoning ICT sector, which especially in South Asia is still dominated by men. In South Asia, young boys and men are five times more likely to access mobile technology than young girls and women.

Credit: UNICEF/UNI309817// Frank Dejongh

    “The representation of women in technology is less, while there is a need for more professionals in the industry. Through some of our community education programmes such as career guidance, we received more support than expected which means there are interested young girls, who want to learn and build a career in this industry, and what they need is guidance and support.” Niuma, Women in Tech Maldives – IDG 2020 South Asia Challenge Winner

As we have seen during COVID-19 school closures, access to digital devices is crucial for accessing technology-based learning and online support services. While expanding access to low tech learning materials, more must be done to ensure that all children have access to the tools required to continue learning,

While getting girls online and ensuring access to technology is one goal, the work does not end there. We must ensure the technology they use is safe and the messages girls see online are enhancing and not harming their self-esteem or reinforcing negative gender stereotypes. We must ensure that adolescent girls have real life female mentors who can guide them through this.

We must make sure that while adolescent girls are learning skills, we are sending the message that they have the unlimited potential to do and be anything they want!

    “72 per cent of girls [in our programme] have gotten their first jobs and are now earning more than the father and the brother of the family, combined. Now she has a say in the decisions, not just in her own life, but those of her entire family. This increase in self-worth and self-respect is what truly contributes to her healing.” Sonal, Protsahan Girls Champions, India – IDG 2020 South Asia Challenge Winner

Credit: UNICEF/UN0215358/Vishwanathan

Paving the way for a brighter future
Adolescent girls should be at the lead in making social change on efforts in returning to school post-COVID-19. To ensure their engagements are genuine and not tokenistic, they must be at the forefront of the design and monitoring of return to school efforts.

    “Gender discrimination is embedded in my country, especially in terms of income, employment and politics. Though it is not highly prevalent, it does exist in a certain manner, where boys somehow take the lead by getting a social advantage. This is why, I am pitching my idea as a voice and representation of all Bhutanese women.” Pema, Cracking the code, Bhutan – IDG 2020 South Asia Challenge Winner

We must engage them in decision making and ask them questions: What do they want education to look like? What changes do they want to see in society? What do they want to learn — and how? We have the opportunity to build back more resilient education systems, and girls should be a part of the planning process.

COVID-19 has taught us that we must be flexible and offer alternative learning programmes that are tailored to the unique needs of marginalized and under-served groups. We must think outside of the box and use innovative tools and solutions to ensure that traditionally unreached children are offered new ways to engage in education.

Our commitment to listening and taking action!
Girls everywhere are breaking boundaries and challenging stereotypes. Whether she is leading the path as an entrepreneur or an innovator for a girls’ rights movement, girls are using the power of their voices to create a world that is unrestricted and inclusive for them and their future generations.

    “We believe that every girl-led advocacy begins with listening. We believe that not only the future, but the present belongs to girls and they can take action now. This IDG 2020, let’s give girls a platform to share the causes that they are most passionate about, that they want to change, and to create a world and reimagine a future which is truly shaped by girls and for girls.” Riju, Nepal Scouts – IDG 2020 South Asia Challenge Winner

Adolescent girls should be at the lead in social change and COVID-19 return to school efforts. The International Day of the Girl 2020 South Asia Challenge provided inspiring examples of role models who are pioneering girl-led and girl-centered programming to change attitudes and stereotypes which prevent girls from achieving their dreams. It is time we listen and increase our actions by amplifying girls’ voices. We want you to know that at UNICEF and Education Cannot Wait we hear you and we are listening!

Joint opinion piece by UNICEF ROSA Regional Director Jean Gough and Education Cannot Wait Director Yasmine Sherif


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