The first person to hold the post called it “the most difficult job in the world”, while The Economist has labelled it a poisoned chalice. Yet 12 candidates, undeterred, are making their bid to succeed Ban Ki-moon as United Nations Secretary-General at the end of 2016.
There are few certainties in the world, but we know that the next Secretary-General’s term will span a dramatic period in global development. If she or he serves two 5-year terms, the world’s population will increase by over 1 billion during their tenure, and the number of children will reach 2.3 billion.
In navigating the myriad challenges presented by the role, it is essential that the next Secretary-General prioritises the promotion of girls’ rights and empowerment. Empowering girls is crucial to achieving the overarching ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to leave no one behind in our efforts to end poverty and boost prosperity worldwide.
Empowering girls will benefit us all
In the years since 1990 – when the first Human Development Report was launched – the world has witnessed a vastly changed environment for girls. During that time, 5 out of 9 developing regions reached gender parity in primary education. The range of careers open to girls has also expanded: more women are now in paid employment outside the agriculture sector, and the average proportion of women in parliament has increased from 11 to 22%.
But despite progress towards gender equality, tens of millions of girls internationally are still denied opportunities, facing the double discrimination of being young and female.
Across the world, 1 in 5 adolescent girls is out of school. As a result, female youths are 1.7 times more likely than male youths to be illiterate, drastically limiting their employment options in later life.
We know that providing a quality, safe education to girls will have a ripple effect across all development areas – but it is not the only answer. Along with an education, girls must have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services, be safe from violence, have economic security, and participate in decision-making processes that affect them.
Realising the full suite of girls’ rights in this way will pave the way for true development. Study after study shows that expanding the role of girls and women in society has a positive effect on peace and security, environmental sustainability, overall public health, and economic growth.
Ban Ki-moon’s legacy
In looking to the future, we should highlight the foundations for girls’ rights laid during Ban Ki-moon’s time at the helm of the UN. In 2010, Mr Ban launched Every Woman Every Child, a major initiative to promote the health of women and children that has already saved millions of lives. This was followed in September 2015 with the launch of a five-year Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health.
To coincide with the most recent International Day of the Girl Child, Mr Ban urged the world to “invest in today’s adolescent girls so that tomorrow they can stand strong as citizens, political leaders, entrepreneurs, heads of their households and more”.
A Secretary-General for girls’ rights and empowerment
If progress is to continue, the next Secretary-General must embrace this vision, and transform the ambition in the SDGs into global, measurable results for girls.
In the vision statements posted by the 12 candidates, it is encouraging to see commitments to gender equality, protecting women and children in conflict, gender mainstreaming at the UN and increasing women’s political participation.
However none of the candidates’ statements explicitly address the unique difficulties faced by girls – and the potential for girls to be catalysts for sustainable development. Once again, girls have been left invisible, out of the public debate.
It is crucial that the next Secretary-General places girls’ rights at the centre of their agenda, and fully resources the SDG framework for advancing girls’ empowerment and equality. Ban Ki-moon’s successor must use their clout, convening power and the considerable apparatus of the UN to help realise the promise of the SDGs, which cannot be done without working with and delivering for girls.