For the past week, I have had the opportunity to join hundreds of girls and young women in the annual Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. Together with eight leaders from the Girl Child Platform, we advocated for two things: that the rights of girls and women needed to be at top of every development agenda and we need to define the empowerment of girls and youth on our own terms.

First of all, the rights of girls need to be defined in a comprehensive and ambitious way. Governments in partnership with the development community need to guarantee every girl’s right to a life free of violence and discrimination; the right to health, education and adequate nutrition; the right to water and the right to a healthy environment. All these rights need to be guaranteed in order to ensure the wellbeing of girls. Throughout the event, we worked to raise the rights of girls in the agenda and to ensure they are all guaranteed in a comprehensive way. When it comes to international development policies, governments tend to commit on the bare minimum to ensure a global agreement. But when it comes to girls’ rights there can be no compromises. And they need to be guaranteed for all, whether a girl lives in a city or in a rural community, whether she lives in a conflict-ridden country, regardless of race, geographic location, immigration status and socioeconomic status. Governments must ensure girls’ basic rights and guarantee that no girl is left behind.

While there are many programs and policies promoting gender equality around the world and in my own country (Mexico): the issue is not the “what” but the how. Educational policies, sexual and reproductive health policies, cannot be top-down approaches. They cannot be based on the same patriarchal mindset that has generated multiple inequalities in the first place. Gender inequality is rooted in unequal power relations. Policies need to be bolder to transform these social structures and relations that keep a patriarchy in place. In order to change this, the international development community and national governments need to place girls and young women at the center and invest in their inherent value and leadership. Programs can’t see girls as victims or beneficiaries, they must make sure girls get an opportunity to fulfill their potential. And one effective way to do this is to invest in their empowerment.

The empowerment of girls has been at the center of global debate now but it should be up to girls, adolescents and young women to define what this really means.

Empowerment occurs when girls or young women understand that they have rights and that they should have the opportunities and freedom to fulfill these. The empowerment occurs when a girl no longer internalizes the unequal power relations between women and men. It is when a girl or young woman truly believes she is a leader and she knows that she has the possibility to shape her life and that of her community and country. And this process doesn’t happen overnight and it’s normally not included in statistics or policy planning.

The empowerment of girls and young women is an individual and collective long-term process and it varies according to different contexts. There is not one solution, plan or policy that can work for all. And that’s why the role of girls and youth advocates is so vital both at the global level and the national level. As a new generation, many of us believe in a new world where equality and justice is possible and necessary. We are to define our rights on our own terms. Now it is time for governments and the UN, who speak about empowerment and rights, to include our inputs, criticisms and contributions. It’s our right and our engagement in the process is the only way we can bridge the gap between promise and reality.

Written by Ana Lucia Marquez Escobedo, The Hunger Project Mexico


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