Right now, there are 100 million girls in low and lower-middle income countries who cannot read a single sentence. And yet, we know that for every year of education a girl completes, her future income increases by more than 10%. Improving the lives of girls benefits their families, their communities, and strengthens whole countries and continents.
Last year, the world agreed a set of ambitious goals for sustainable development. But they will only be achieved if we can unlock the power of girls. Many of the targets we have set ourselves depend upon the ability of girls to secure their rights to education, to safety, to health, and to equal status.
Yet the obscurity in which the lives of girls are lived threatens to undermine our ability to make the change we need. Girls are too often hidden from sight not just in their communities but also in the statistics that drive policy.
What we do know reveals some disturbing truths. At current rates, by 2020 more than 140 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage and motherhood limit girls’ access to education, reducing their life-long earning capacity.
There are more immediate implications, of course. Today, about 830 women will die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. Almost all of them will be in developing countries. It is a horrible number, but the missing numbers worry me just as much. For while we know that girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth, we don’t even know how many girls under 15 years of age become pregnant each year.
The problem with data is deeper: 230 million children under age 5 globally do not have a birth certificate, denying them the right to a legal identity, while more than 100 countries lack sufficient systems to register key life events including births and marriages. Until we can at the very least count them, the chances of transforming the position of girls remains vanishingly small.
And it is not simply that things that may be easy to count go uncounted. We know that safe, affordable public transport is crucial to girls’ independence, to their access to education, health and other important services. But while we can count the number of buses available in each city, we take no account of whether girls feel safe enough to use them.
Girls are then subject to a double indignity: the marginalisation in their lives is deepened by their invisibility. If we are serious about meeting the global goals, we must be sure that the indicators and measurements we put in place are up to the task, and that the specificities of girls’ lives are reflected within them, because the Invisible Girl is one that can more easily be left behind.
The power of girls
Of course, given half a chance, girls are more than capable of making themselves visible. In Delhi, for example, 96% of adolescent girls told us that they did not feel safe in public spaces. Seventeen-year-old Meera was one of them, having to endure constant harassment on her way to school. But, inspired by an event on girl-friendly public spaces, Meera got involved in the Safer Cities initiative, part of Plan International’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ movement for girls' rights.
By giving girls a voice, many of the challenges they face can be overcome
Now she is making the case directly to local decision makers. Street lights and CCTV cameras have been installed, security guards watch over the areas around local schools, and local leaders are taking steps to improve safety for girls in Meera’s neighbourhood. She has encouraged her father, a rickshaw driver, to get involved and he now advises other drivers on the safety of female passengers.
By giving girls a voice, many of the challenges they face can be overcome. By giving them a role in holding us to account, we can accelerate change, and ensure that their needs are addressed effectively.
New chapter for girls' rights
The movement for girls’ rights is a broad one, and one that is ever more impatient for progress. It came into its own in building the Sustainable Development Goals but stretches far beyond into wider civil society: think of the response to the rapes in India, of the #bringbackourgirls campaign.
A new chapter is opening for our movement, as we seek to secure real progress from last year’s historic agreement. We must mobilise to ensure that governments and others collect, disaggregate and utilise data smartly – including innovative, perception-based methods – so that the lives of girls do not become lost between the numbers.
The global goals provide the platform for progress, if we have the will and energy to use it. The gap between where we are and where we want to be remains daunting. Yet it is not hopeless. We know that 88% of girls believe that they have more opportunities than their mothers had – progress is possible. But if progress is to become transformation, we need to bring the Invisible Girl into the light.
The Commission on the Status of Women* takes place at the United Nations headquarters in New York from 14 - 24 March.
Find out more about Plan International's Because I am a Girl movement for girls' rights
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