The story of Chipo*, 17, in Zhombe, Zimbabwe, is heart-breaking but unfortunately too often heard. She married young, in a rush of youthful passion and the belief her dashing boyfriend’s illegal gold-mining adventures would secure the riches her impoverished family could not provide. Quickly she was pregnant, abused and abandoned. When I met her in September she was learning to sew for an income in a Plan International project and being encouraged to resume some studies. The mental scars of her beatings were still evident.
Recent research we commissioned with IPSOS Mori among thousands of adolescent girls in Ecuador, Pakistan, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe shows that a shocking 68 per cent of girls who marry young face violence in the home. A majority of these girls from Asia, Africa and South America say that they live in fear of attack from family members, on the street, at school or as a result of forced marriage or pregnancy.
Girls speak out
Last month the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed as the world’s development agenda for the next 15 years by all 193 governments at the UN. At their heart is goal of achieving true gender equality. It can’t be done without halting violence against girls. That’s what girls are speaking out to demand – and they are finally being listened to.
In boardrooms, state rooms and classrooms, the realisation that oppressing half the world’s population is no longer acceptable or affordable is gathering momentum. It’s not just among the world’s NGOs and women’s rights organisations, but among politicians, presidents and importantly, among fathers, brothers, husbands and men in positions of authority.
Our new report, The Unfinished Business of Girls’ Rights, makes clear that the coming years can bring historic improvement in the lives of girls if we lock in gains made in health, rights and social standing, and end the violence that still afflicts them. In the report, girls and young women present their solutions, focusing not only on their problems but also on their determination to overcome them.
Our research was one of the largest of its kind. In it girls say they are more valued in their communities than their mothers were when young but fear of violence and violence still hold them back. They want more control over their lives and the ability to take part in decisions that affect them. They want their parents and communities to listen when they speak out. They want a voice. They recognise the transformative power of education. They want more information and communication about early pregnancy, early marriage and gender-based violence. They tell us this is more important than any form of legislation or policy change.
Decisive action required
Achieving gender equality is the single most important factor in influencing how the world develops
We should sit up and listen to these suggestions. We must take bold and decisive action so that all girls will finally be able to complete a decent education, enjoy good health and be empowered to make choices about their lives, including whether and whom to marry, when and if to get pregnant, and how to find a decent job. They want to be valued as highly as boys.
When I speak to the girls involved with Plan International’s work I feel a palpable change, a knowledge in them that they can achieve, that they are the world’s future leaders and policy makers. This passion is infectious, the flame, if you like, that will ignite the future.
Achieving gender equality is the single most important factor in influencing how the world develops. At its core are power relationships, which are enforced through violence in schools, in homes and in the streets. In the next 15 years we must overcome the deep-rooted drivers of injustice and inequality that make girls like Chipo in rural Zimbabwe so vulnerable to violence.
* Chipo’s name has been changed for her protection.