The Beijing + 25 Political Declaration adopted today by UN Member States fails to reflect the bold and intensified efforts required to rapidly accelerate the fulfillment of girls’ and women’s rights. It is virtually the same as the 2015 declaration, which was considered weak at the time.
The political declaration is an opportunity to renew and build upon the historic commitments to secure the rights of girls and women in 1995. However, in the current political climate, this increasingly plays out as a political battle that pits conservative states citing protection of traditional values against progressive states seeking to secure real progress on gender equality. The 2020 political declaration reflects the unwillingness of Member States to fully embrace gender equality as a human rights issue. Plan International is particularly disappointed that States are still sidelining adolescent girls, neglecting their rights, and ignoring their voices.
Despite strong advocacy from Plan International and other civil society organizations, the Beijing + 25 political declaration does not reference adolescent girls as a distinct group. Why is this important? Because adolescent girls face specific challenges and risks because of their age and gender that demand targeted responses. One area of concern outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 was ‘the girl child,’ but all 12 areas of concern are directly relevant for adolescent girls.
One reason progress has lagged for adolescent girls is that international agreements, and government policies to advance gender equality, generally group adult women and adolescent girls together. This leaves the unique experiences of adolescent girls unacknowledged and unaddressed. The consequences of this? Twenty- five years on, they are one of the most marginalized and excluded populations in the world. They are still being married off, denied autonomy over their bodies, missing out on education, and ignored by those in power. Governments must change course and give adolescent girls the respect and attention they deserve. This is essential for the fulfillment of human rights, girls’ equality, and gender equality more broadly.
Girls and young women understand their needs better than anyone else. It is in everyone’s interest to involve them in the decisions that directly impact their lives, as doing so leads to more impactful policies and programmes. Unfortunately, the suggestion to add language to support girls’ participation was not accepted. The inclusion of anyone under the age of 18 in international policies continues to be contentious, despite the numerous examples of its positive impact. The reality is that gender equality will never be achieved if governments continue to ignore the voices of adolescent girls. They need to be represented at all levels and have space and power to voice their opinions and advocate for themselves.
ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT OF GIRLS
Although adolescent girls and young women continue to face challenges transitioning into the formal economy, the recommendation to include “girls” in the economic empowerment section of the political declaration was rejected. This continues to be contested as the term is often associated with promoting child labor and interrupting education, rather than setting up girls to succeed in the workforce as adults. It also must be recognized that some girls are already in the workforce and ensuring that protections are in place for them – regardless of the legality of their situation—is essential. In this context, girls’ economic empowerment is particularly important.
While education is crucial, young women are hindered economically by several obstacles. Nearly one in four adolescent girls aged 15–19 years globally are neither in education, employment, nor training programs, compared to 1 in 10 boys of the same age. Girls have fewer options than their male peers for decently paid work, less access to finances and credit as they get older, and limited training opportunities to allow them to participate in male-dominated jobs. Moreover, gender biases in the labour market, discriminatory laws, and societal expectations of girls, such as child marriage and motherhood, are all obstacles to financial independence. Girls have less access to technology and are not profiting from its benefits equally. These roadblocks can be addressed, but it will require governments to expand their understanding of what it means to support girls’ economic empowerment.
Plan International welcomes the limited progress for girls made in the 2020 political declaration. The consistent use across the text of “all women and girls” is an achievement; It is more inclusive, cross-cutting, and opens the door for more marginalized groups. Compared to the 2015 political declaration, there is a more prominent reference to “human rights and fundamental freedoms” across the document.
Overall, however, human rights standards for women and girls were not strengthened, and the negotiations mainly focused on ensuring that they were not weakened. Maintaining the status quo is never going to get us where we need to be-- especially in the current political climate where conservatives’ agendas are gaining traction and space for civil society participation is shrinking.
This decade we have the potential to make historic progress towards a gender-equal world. Advocates are galvanized and pushing for bold commitments, the evidence is building, donors are listening, and most importantly, millions of girls and women around the word are fed-up with the status quo. We must hold governments to account for progress on their promises made in Beijing. Otherwise, we stand little chance of achieving the ambition of gender equality or the Sustainable Development Goals.