Girl activists fear for safety: gains come at personal cost

3 October 2023

One in five girl and young women activists have feared for their safety while carrying out their work, our latest research finds.

One in five (17%) girl and young women activists have feared for their safety while carrying out their work, according to new research by girls’ rights NGO Plan International.

The global study – which involved over a thousand young female activists from 26 countries, aged between 15 and 24 – lays bare how girls face a multitude of challenges as they campaign for change, facing risks ranging from hostility from community members to oppressive policing and online abuse.

One in 10 (9%) have faced threats of physical violence as a result of their work, while 15% have experienced online harassment and abuse.

Lack of funding holds girls back

The single biggest barrier to girls’ activism is a shortage of funding, named by more than half (54%) of girls surveyed as the main factor holding their campaigning back.

Despite this, the report – Turning the World Around: Girl and young women activists leading the fight for equality – found that nearly all girl activists (95%) say campaigning has had a positive impact on their lives, making them feel proud, empowered, and capable.

The research highlights the experiences of young female campaigners and is launched ahead of International Day of the Girl on 11 October. It includes a survey of 840 girl and young women activists – one of the biggest to date – which also found that:

  • Girls’ activism is creating change, with more than half (61%) of those surveyed by Plan International saying the impact of their activism has met or exceeded their expectations.
  • Gender equality is the single most important issue for girl activists, with 60% naming gender equality or gender-based violence as a priority issue.
  • Activism takes a huge toll on girls’ mental health and can come at huge personal cost. One in four (25%) say they’ve felt emotionally unwell or anxious while engaging in activism work, for LGBTIQ+ activists, this figure rises to one in three (31%).
  • One in four (27%) girls cited negative views from members of their family or community as another barrier to their campaigning work.

Support girl activists to create a better world

In the words of Muzoon, 25, a Syrian refugee and education activist who contributed to the report: “It is not an easy nor a straightforward mission. To be an activist requires a tremendous amount of patience, strong will and determination in order to achieve your goals.”

Blessing, 17, is a campaigner from Sierra Leone who helped pass a law to increase female representation in Parliament last year. “I have seen how boys have a lesser regard for females, so I’ve taken that up as my responsibility to empower other girls,” she adds.

“Girls have so much potential, but they’re not given the platform to exhibit this potential.

“I’m ready to let them see what we have as females. To let society know what we can contribute and to show each and every person out there in the world that there must be no discrimination or less regard for females.”

Girls have so much potential, but they’re not given the platform to exhibit this potential.

Blessing, 17, Sierra Leone

Girls and young women were found to be engaging in activism on a range of issues, ranging from gender-based violence to sexual and reproductive health rights, climate and the environment.

“From taking action on the climate crisis to stopping child marriage, girl activists are changing their communities – and the world around them – for the better. Injustice is driving girls to act,” says Kathleen Sherwin, Plan International’s Chief Strategy and Engagement Officer.

“At the same time, our research has found that as a girl or young woman, campaigning for change is often tough and unrelenting. In a world where gender discrimination remains widespread, young female activists are all too often ignored, or worse, harassed, or ostracised. Their incredible achievements often come at real personal cost. Access to funding and policy making spaces is also often in short supply, adding to the struggle to get their voices heard.

“Girls and young women have the right to be heard and to shape the decisions that affect their lives. They are making great achievements despite the personal risks to them, showing great courage. Without their work, we remain a long way from achieving gender equality.

“That’s why it’s critical that we all play our part in supporting the work of girl activists. Their safety and wellbeing must be protected, and we need to widen participation in key decision-making processes, to make sure that our future generations aren’t being left behind.”

International Day of the Girl

Ahead of International Day of the Girl, Plan Internationalis standing with girls and young women as they call for governments, donors, and civil society to play their part in supporting girl activists to create a better world. Key recommendations include:

  • Increased funding for girl and youth-led activist initiatives and groups.
  • Governments to support girls and young women to engage meaningfully in all areas of public life. This should include regular access to decision-makers and creating mechanisms for girls to engage in civil society, and formally within institutions.
  • Quality education on gender equality, human rights and democratic governance to build girls’ understanding of activism, and skills training in areas such as organising and public speaking, to build confidence in girls’ ability to campaign and have influence on the topics they care about.
  • All power holders to play their part in tackling age and gender discrimination, and the threat of violence, and to create safe, open spaces, to remove the barriers to girls speaking out.