I’m very excited about International Day of the Girl because this year, I am spending the day working at an organization fighting to ensure that all girls have access to free, safe and quality education. The more time I spend working in this environment, the more inspirational girls’ stories I have the chance to hear.
Girls all over the world are dedicating their lives to stopping climate change, fighting for gender equality and human rights, reducing poverty and increasing access to education and healthcare.
In the United States, Mari Copeni – also known as Little Miss Flint– is fighting for her community’s right to clean water by putting an end to the Flint Water Crisis. Zuriel Oduwole, a girls’ education advocate, is using documentary film and public speaking to highlight the importance of access to technology for gender equality in education.
In Nicaragua, Edelsin Linette Mendez is raising awareness about the crippling effects of climate change, especially when it comes to coffee crops in her home. In Indonesia, Melati and Isabel Wijsen launched Bye Bye Plastic Bags in October 2013 to stop the use, sale and production of single-use plastic bags.
In Ecuador, Nina Gualinga is fighting for indigenous peoples’ rights. In Argentina, teenage girls are fighting for their sexual and reproductive rights like access to birth control, quality sexual education and free, legal and safe abortions. In Mexico, young women are taking action against street harassment.
The fact that these girls are making such a huge impact in their communities proves that when girls are educated and empowered they can change the world.
In my case, I’m lucky to have a younger sister who brightens my life every day. She is always there to lift me up when I’m bringing myself down. She is always protecting and defending her loved ones, especially those who can’t defend themselves. I will always admire her unique artistic talent (she created the illustration for this blog post!), her selflessness and her bravery. I love how comfortable she is in her own skin. She makes my life so much better just by being a part of it. So today I want to celebrate her and all the girls who make us smile every day.
I hope today you take some time to celebrate the girls in your life. Remind them that you are there for them. Make sure they know you will support them as they chase their dreams and fight for what they believe in.
With nearly 1 billion girls on the planet and 600 million adolescent girls entering the workforce in the next 10 years, enabling girls to be active participants in the global economy is vital – for those girls, their families, and their countries.
Supporting girls in becoming economic agents is important not only because girls should be treated equally and fairly, but also because girls’ participation in the world of work is of structural importance for the global economy.
The theme for this year’s International Day of the Girl, With Her: A Skilled GirlForce, speaks to the importance of a global conversation on this issue.
So how do we prepare girls to be contributing members of the global economy, prepared to join the worldwide workforce? One much discussed answer is by completing primary and secondary education. With 131 million girls currently out of school, we still have a long way to go to accomplish this goal. But there’s another important foundation that can help empower girls financially and economically.
WomenStrong International believes the key to a skilled ‘GirlForce’ is by building girls’ ‘protective assets’, a term coined by the Population Council to describe the most important skills, resources, and knowledge girls need to protect themselves and thrive.
Girls’ ‘protective assets’ include having a trusted adult to turn to in times of crisis, knowing how to access contraception, being skilled at communicating with elders, and understanding how to manage money.
When girls have these essential skills and awareness, they are able to advocate for themselves, express their opinions and desires, seek support and help, and have the self-esteem and confidence needed not only to dream big, but also to follow those dreams. These basic skills are a foundation on which girls can then learn any technical skills they may need to enter the workforce and make the best decisions for their own financial futures.
Without vital life skills, girls may be subject to discrimination or exploitation in the workplace, or may not be allowed to work at all.
For example, if a girl’s father tells her she cannot sell popsicles after school to earn money for school supplies, she can use her conflict management and communication skills to have a respectful discussion with him. Another girl may begin work as a waitress but is sexually harassed by her boss – she knows his behavior is inappropriate because of her understanding of human rights, so she can report this behavior to the appropriate person at the restaurant or managing company.
An effective approach to teaching these life skills is in safe spaces for girls, such as Girls’ Clubs. WomenStrong consortium members in Ghana, Kenya, India, and Haiti run Girls’ Clubs for more than 9,000 girls. Clubs teach girls about financial literacy, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, communication and relationship-building skills, goal-setting, self-esteem, and much more.
In early 2019, WomenStrong will release Strong Girls Make Strong Women: A Practical Handbook for Creating and Leading a Girls’ Club. The handbook compiles best practices from our Clubs and other experts, including a 16-chapter curriculum covering the most important topics girls need to know.
Crucially, the sisterhood formed among Club members serves as a valuable protective asset for the girls, because they have a community with whom they can share their successes and challenges, peers to turn to when they need support or are in crisis, and a community of friends who will encourage them to pursue their goals. This social aspect of the Girls’ Club is every bit as important as the skills learned.
Equipping girls through Girls’ Clubs with soft skills and a social network enhances their economic wellbeing and helps girls avoid or deal effectively with situations that might otherwise derail them from their goals and dreams.
But what do life skills have to do with helping girls transition into the world of work?
Take Nancy, who lives in the peri-urban community of Krobo, outside of Kumasi, Ghana. Nancy became pregnant in the first year of junior high, at age 15. Faced with uncertainty about her pregnancy and her financial future, Nancy dropped out of school. Fortunately, Nancy was a member of a Women’s Health to Wealth (WHW) Girls’ Club, supported by WomenStrong.
Club members and the Club facilitator noticed she was absent from school for several weeks and reached out to her. Learning of her pregnancy, WHW helped Nancy return to school to finish her basic education. Her social safety net, the Girls’ Club, helped her get back on track.
Equipped with the skills from the Girls’ Club and from her basic education, Nancy then went on, with WHW’s support, to study jewelry-making and now runs a successful bead-making business that supports her three-year-old child and employs two other teen mothers. Nancy’s life skills education and Girls’ Club membership enabled her to become a thriving member of her local economy, benefiting herself, her family, and other young women in Krobo.
As we, the global community, look ahead to how 600 million adolescent girls can be best prepared to join the world of work, we must remember to build girls’ foundation of life skills.
Empowered with the knowledge of how to manage a budget, advocate for oneself, and respectfully manage conflict and debate (just a few life skills girls need to know), girls are then free to pursue their careers of choice and to be thriving members of the global economy, benefiting themselves and creating ripples of benefits that can improve the lives of those around them.
The Caribbean, known for its white sandy beaches, clear waters and vibrant culture is also home to the second highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world – second to Sub-Saharan Africa. The highest rates of adolescent pregnancy within the Caribbean are found in the Dominican Republic and Guyana.
When a girl becomes pregnant she faces many challenges, such as being kicked out of school, ostracism from family and friends, lack of support from the father of the child(ren), and lack of access to continuing her education.
These challenges lead to a cycle of intergenerational poverty, unemployment and gender based violence.
Despite a societal culture that does not encourage adolescent mothers returning to school, strides have been made to ensure that they have the opportunity to continue and complete their education. Specifically, in Jamaica, multi-sectoral approaches have led to the establishment and implementation of the Policy for the Reintegration of School Aged Mothers into the Formal School System, which mandates that adolescent mothers be allowed to return to school after having their child.
To date, approximately 2,850 adolescent mothers have been reintegrated into the formal school system. Jamaica is the first Caribbean island to have such a policy, while the implementation of Guyana’s reintegration policy is currently underway.
There have also been advances in supporting adolescent mothers through programming. Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Kitts and Nevis are a few of the Caribbean countries that have programs or organizations dedicated to advancing the health and rights of adolescent mothers.
In Jamaica, the Women’s Centre Jamaica Foundation is promoting a new approach to problems associated with teenage pregnancy, especially in the area of interrupted education. Women Across Differences in Guyana implements the Empowerment Programme to provide a safe and friendly learning environment for mothers to acquire sexual & reproductive health information and services , as well as life skills to create a better life for themselves and their children.
The Adolescent Mothers Programme (Trinidad and Tobago) and Project Viola (St. Kitts and Nevis) are programs established through collaborative efforts of ministries and community-based organizations. Both provide a wide range of support such as counseling, career development, parenting courses and skills training.
As a native of Jamaica and the founder of Pearls of Potential – an organization providing support and services to adolescent mothers in the developing world – I am proud of the work that has been done in the Caribbean in supporting adolescent mothers.
Caribbean leaders must understand the importance of educating adolescent mothers. They must also establish and strengthen resources and policies that will support the completion of their education.
It is important for governing bodies such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to create agendas that include goals in support of adolescent mothers and ensure that these goals align with the Sustainable Development Goals. The continued tangible support of international non-governmental organizations such as UNFPA, UNICEF and UNESCO is also paramount to the sustainability of current programs.
On this International Day of Girl, with the theme With Her: A Skilled GirlForce, we must make a commitment to ensure that adolescent mothers have the opportunity to continue and complete their education, which will give them a chance to gain skills for employment, provide for their child(ren) and contribute to a growing society.
We must remember that when we invest in our girls, we invest in our future.
This year, International Day of the Girl is focused on the empowerment of girls in crisis situations. According to UNICEF, approximately 535 million children worldwide were living in countries affected by conflict, natural disasters, epidemics, and other emergencies last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one such country.
DRC is located in the Great Lakes region of Africa and home to breathtaking scenery and vibrant people. Although civil war here officially ended in 2003, conflict between government forces and various armed groups has persisted and remains ongoing in certain regions. DRC is rich in natural resources, but it remains mostly poor in terms of infrastructure and economic opportunity for its citizens. Women and girls, in particular, face enormous challenges just to survive and provide for themselves and their families.
The health system in DRC is weak and unable to fully meet the primary health needs of the population, including sexual, reproductive, and maternal health needs. Tens of thousands of Congolese women and girls die each year from pregnancy and childbirth – many are only teenagers.
Adolescents and young people in DRC often find it difficult or impossible to access health care. Information and services related to sex and reproductive health (SRH) are especially hard to find due to cultural norms and expectations (such as abstinence before marriage) that prohibit young people from seeking them out. If a young person does manage to reach a health clinic or provider, it is not uncommon for them to be denied care because of their age or even shamed for seeking it out.
“Why do you need condoms? You’re too young to be having sex! Go home!”
Of course, teenage girls and boys in DRC (and around the world) are having sex whether or not adults approve. And without knowledge of sexual health or access to contraceptives, girls are accidentally getting pregnant. Girls like Claudine.
Claudine is 19 years old and lives in Goma, the bustling capital of the North Kivu province of DRC. Not knowing how to protect herself, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child at age 17. She has returned to school and is studying social sciences at the Uzima Institute.
Fortunately, SRH information and services are becoming more available to Goma teenagers through Vijana Juu (translates to ‘Stand Up for Youth’), a project implemented by CARE DRC and funded by the UK Department for International Development. Adolescents and young people partnered with CARE staff to identify barriers to accessing and using contraception, brainstormed solutions, and worked with community leaders and health administrators to change the situation.
They recognized that their peers did not feel comfortable going to local health centers because they might run into judgmental adults, so certain clinics responded by setting up discreet side entrances available to youth only and created adolescent-specific referral cards to improve access to health services. Open meeting spaces designed by young people were established next to health centers where adolescents could come to talk with their peers about issues related to SRH in a relaxed environment that belongs to them, and teenagers could volunteer to be trained as peer leaders, providing information and referrals to their friends and neighbors.
CARE is helping to train health providers to recognize and challenge their own values and biases toward teenage sex that could discourage youth from seeking services. CARE is also supporting health facilities to provide a full range of contraceptive options and reproductive health services to adolescent girls and young women.
Over 6000 adolescents received sexual and reproductive health counseling and services through this program, and many began using contraception for the first time. About 30% of these new contraceptive users are girls, and 65% of them selected a highly effective, long-acting and reversible method (implant or IUD).
After her child was born, Claudine visited one of the Vijana Juu youth-friendly health clinics for an IUD so she could finish school without the risk of getting pregnant again. She has become a vocal advocate for safe sex in her community, and advises her friends to use contraception. When we asked why, she explained:
“Girls my age forget that sex can lead to harmful consequences like unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and even death. Young people need to be informed. Adolescent girls and boys have a right to sexual health to make a better future and realize their dreams.”