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Op-ed: Giving girls a voice

28 September 2012

Schoolgirls in Senegal

Have you ever felt invisible? Scared? Worthless? That the choices you made weren’t really your choices at all? Sadly, that’s the daily reality for millions of girls around the world; girls who, because of their age and gender, are too easily ignored, discriminated against, left at the bottom of the social ladder. Girls who, trapped in a life of poverty, may never be able to fulfil their potential. This must change.

Discrimination against girls and women is one of the main underlying causes of poverty. It contributes to high infant and childhood mortality, to low educational achievement, and to failures to protect children from harm. If the EU is to make real progress towards its goal of eradicating poverty, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, addressing the plight of girls is a good place to start. We need to make sure girls are visible and that when decisions are being made which affect their lives, their voices are heard.

This year, we have one very powerful tool at our disposal to make sure the particular needs and challenges girls face are thrust to the fore: the International Day of the Girl Child, which will be celebrated for the first time on 11 October 2012, during the European Week of Action for Girls organised by Plan. Plan offices and supporters around the world campaigned hard to create an International Day of the Girl, ultimately taking the issue to the United Nations General Assembly last year with the support of the Canadian Government. At EU level, we worked closely with the European Parliament, which demonstrated its support for girls’ rights when it passed a Written Declaration on the issue last December.

This day, and week of action, comes at a critical moment in the international development debate. Right now, decisions are being made which will shape the future of millions of men, women and children – including girls – for years to come.

The Agenda for Change, which lays the foundations for the EU’s future development policy, and the multiannual budget set aside to finance it, will play a critical role in determining whether the bloc has both the will and the resources required to meet its commitment to poverty eradication and set countries on a path towards sustainable and inclusive growth.

Discussions about what the future international development framework should look like are also hotting up, and the EU – with development commissioner Andris Piebalgs sitting on the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel charged with the task of advising world leaders on the global development agenda post-2015 – must push to ensure the new agenda is one which puts human rights, equality and sustainability at its heart.

Girls and women must be empowered, to understand and stand up for their rights and be a force for change. The World Economic Forum has identified four categories of empowerment: equality in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Education underpins each of these areas, which is why Plan will launch our global campaign on girls’ education on 11 October, called Because I am a Girl. By working with duty-bearers at all levels, including the EU, we aim to secure the policy changes necessary to ensure all girls have the opportunity to access, and benefit from, at least nine years of education.

Girls who complete their basic education are more likely to be equipped with the skills and attributes needed to succeed in life. They are less likely to experience violence, marry or have children early; are more likely to be literate, health and survive into adulthood; and are more likely to reinvest their income back into their families, communities and countries.

Let me therefore say it once again: if the EU is serious about poverty eradication and improving the lives of the world’s poorest citizens, protecting girls’ rights and promoting gender equality must be its guiding light.

Editor's notes

By Karen Schroh, Head of Plan EU Office. This article was first published in New Europe, Number 997, 9-15 September 2012, page 15.