Gender equality: the social and political issue of our time

2 OCTOBER 2017

New research shows that laws, policies and campaigns which change attitudes towards girls are critical if we are to achieve gender equality, blogs Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen.

What does power feel like? It’s difficult to define, isn’t it? One thing I know is we’ve all felt powerless. Who hasn’t felt their stomach drop as something they want control over is ripped from their grasp?

A sense of powerlessness is demoralising and disheartening. Being powerless keeps you in your place at the bottom of the pile. Worst of all it feeds off itself, growing stronger with each knock-back.

How power affects girls’ lives

In the latest research from Plan International, girls are starting to talk about power and analyse its impact on their lives. In many of the places where Plan International works and in quite a few that we don’t, north and south, girls are made to feel powerless every day. Their daily lives are plagued by poverty, violence and prejudice and in many cases they feel rejected by their families.

“The parents only favour the boys. They even say that a [girl] child is a curse.” says Mercy*, 16 from Uganda.

The image of a daughter as a curse is the stuff of nightmares, but is the lived reality of many. The idea that girls are worth less than boys is one Plan International has been fighting to change for 80 years. Gender inequality is so much part of the fabric of society, at school, at home, on TV, in parliament and at work, that lots of people don’t really notice it. Unless of course you are one of the many girls and women whose everyday lives are riddled with prejudice and discrimination.

Progress is too slow

The struggle for gender equality has been going on for centuries. Yes, we’ve made progress but it is glacially slow: too much power at too many levels remains concentrated in male hands. We are also witnessing a worrying trend where girls’ and women’s rights are under attack from regressive policies and oppressive laws.

Gender inequality needs to be met with zero tolerance and stamped out.

If we are to achieve gender equality we’ll need the support of everyone, but especially from those in power. We need our leaders and decision makers to stand in solidarity with girls and fight with them.

It will mean changing and implementing laws, challenging families, their social norms and promoting a different vision of girls and young women; not a curse, a cleaner, or a sex object which are the roles and images that by and large girls feel defined by.

“Mothers always say, I am proud of my daughter because she helps me. They are not proud of what we are, but of what we do; it does not matter if one is a good student, the important thing is that one helps at home and does what they want.” says Natalia*, 14, from Colombia.

Girls want to lead

Plan International’s research over the last few years shows us that girls themselves are challenging inequality and are keen to lead change. But the research also shows us that, too often, they are beaten back: defeated by a lack of support and by the backlash that any questioning of the status quo tends to provoke. They are bullied, sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, for daring to speak out and rebel against the rules that define what girls and boys can and can’t do.

Gender does not define ability and girls should not be chained to a life of domestic servitude for want of a Y chromosome. Girls should feel liberated to fully enjoy the rights afforded to them, denying these rights denies our societies the benefit of a wealth of talent and energy. It’s not girls who are the limiting factor here but people’s perceptions of them. Like 17 year old Kisakye* from Uganda, this makes them angry.

“It’s the boys who are leading in everything. The bigger posts are being given to boys. [They believe] that girls cannot handle such posts. The other thing is that girls cannot do heavy jobs and they are only left for boys, like engineering. Presidency is not meant for girls. People say that a woman cannot rule a man. Because they assume we don’t have brains that can transform the country.” she says.

Call for change

It should make us all angry. And we can all do something about it. We can try much harder to understand the damage that gender inequality causes – to boys as well as girls. We can look at our own attitudes and lives, and we can demand that government at all levels funds effective public campaigns to promote gender equality. We can protest when media images promote violence or denigrate women and girls. We can start a social movements for girls’ rights that makes a real difference.

Gender inequality needs to be met with zero tolerance and stamped out. And you know where we really need to do the work? Within our own families. This means governments, and all of us, taking a long hard look at this traditionally private sphere and getting to grips with it. Laws, policies and campaigns must step into people’s personal lives.

Gender equality is THE social and political issue of our time. We know what girls want and need, we have been told what their lives are like and now, alongside them, we need to act.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

Campaigns, Youth empowerment