More than one day is needed to affect gender equality and ensure promising futures for our girls. To realize these goals we must consistently dedicate ourselves to restructuring our societies and actively demanding justice and equal opportunity in every sector for all girls and women.
October 11, 2014 marked the 3rd International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC) and around the world the day was celebrated with marches, speeches, and the airing of documentaries. New audiences were introduced to some of the horrors that are buzz topics in the current feminist movement, including gender-based violence (GBV), female genital mutilation/female genital cutting (FGM), child marriage, and pay inequalities.
Through this exposure, some people may have gained a new understanding of the pressing issues confronting girls and women around the world. This new knowledge has the potential to motivate previously apathetic persons to temporarily get involved, most commonly by making monetary donations to one of the organizations dedicated to women’s and girls’ rights. This is not a bad thing, given that most forms of gender inequality are stubbornly rooted in poverty and unequal power distribution. But we need more than one day to right the myriad of injustices faced by girls and women around the globe. One day and a handful of fragmented stories cannot provide even a foundational understanding on the realities faced by girls and women around the world as their human rights are systematically assailed one by one. Therefore, it would be unwise to assume that dedicating one single day to these issues, in large part a gesture of tokenism, will necessarily lead to a revolution or even modest long-term gains.
As the 2014 IDGC fades behind us, we must renew our commitment and investment to recognizing the realities of gender discrimination that exist every day of the year.
Proponents of IDGC will espouse this day for how its recognition has markedly increased attention received by global issues of gender inequality. Increasing attention around these issues is important but it is not new. Some advocates claim that before the inaugural event in 2012, girls’ challenges weren’t on the minds of world leaders or the international community. This however is not true.
In 2009 there was the International Girl Child Conference at the Hague, three years before the inaugural namesake day was instituted. Before this, the world’s leaders had signed on to a number of different international treaties committed to ensuring gender equality, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and ratified in 1981, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and ratified in 1990, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which was presented at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.
These are important documents, unfortunately recognizing gender injustice has not led to appropriate action. For example, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action has been considered a landmark international agreement for the advancement of women’s and girls’ rights. Yet for the past 20 years the international community has failed to come together for a promised Fifth World Conference on Women and has equally failed to reach many of the targets set forth in the Platform for Action.
Rather than writing bold new promises, we need to recommit to existing targets and make sure that our actions and investments match the strength of our words.
Gender discrimination continues to flourish in countries and cultures around the world, equally proliferating in both public and private spaces. Today we hear about girls and women being raped and assaulted in public view, from Tahrir Square and the streets of Delhi to college campuses and high profile couples. Our outrage momentarily spikes with each new story but then dims too quickly, permitting our complacency. Our inaction has allowed the violence faced by women to continue and in some areas increase, in spite of taking place under the public’s watchful eyes and amidst public condemnations. World leaders and international organizations are misled when they claim that these topics require greater awareness, we have to move beyond awareness. What they require is a stronger commitment to action, a larger investment of capital and resources, and greater accountability.
As Jody Williams, a political activist known for her outspoken role defending women’s rights, put it “I believe that worrying about the problems plaguing our planet without taking steps to confront them is absolutely irrelevant. The only thing that changes the world is taking action.” (NPR, 2006)
While females across the global north celebrated the IDGC and the media filled with images of privileged activists such as Emma Watson, we must ask ourselves how the occasion serves the girls that it is meant to recognize. I live and work in rural, eastern Uganda where IDGC was ushered in silence rather than through celebration or activism. Sadly, there was no promotion of this day and the local girls and women passed their time working in the same underappreciated roles that they always do. It is in communities like these that we must bring the message of hope and opportunity: the promise of the girl child. We must not allow cultural norms, societal practices, or insufficient legal codes to serve as an excuse for failing to address gender discrimination. Instead we must finally employ the international treaties that have been in place for decades and recognize women’s rights as human rights, inherently held by all regardless of gender, nationality, race, age, religion, or cultural beliefs.
While action is needed, it must be born in mind that there are school children that have not learned about or celebrated IDGC. The global development community must take notice of this. The silence in some classrooms on days such as this is deafening. This silence must affect our understanding of the progress being made on girls’ education, which has been lauded by many as the single greatest means of effecting gender equality. But where education remains layered in gender stereotypes and entrenched in institutionalized inequities, it will not provide an autonomous panacea. We need to shift from measuring progress of girls’ universal educational attainment based strictly on enrollment numbers, to a qualitative understanding that considers attendance rates, gender sensitive curriculums, and the level of equality promoted by teachers within the classroom.
Despite some of the progress in the promotion and visibility of IDGC there are still major issues. While women’s rights activists in the West are invited to galas and fundraisers, the majority of women continue on in their everyday lives silenced, overlooked, and undervalued. This day must lay equal value to the labor and rights of nameless domestic workers as it does to new Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai. As world leaders emphasize the importance of funneling girls into STEM curriculums to benefit their national economic growth plans, we must not forget that female empowerment cannot be directed by the needs of male heads of state. True gender equality requires providing women with the right to choose and pursue their own future, whether that be in engineering or child rearing. As societies we all have the responsibility to protect and support women throughout these pursuits, regardless of their choice.
It will not be enough to applaud ourselves for raising our voices one single day a year and then allowing IDGC to be filed away with the other 118 UN sponsored days of recognition. IDGC must become more than a daylong symbolic call to the streets. Instead it must be a clear demand to stay on the streets in solidarity until equality is realized in every nation, culture, classroom, and workplace.
In recognition of the third International Day of the Girl Child, let us call upon ourselves and the global community to increase our investment and commitment to ending all forms of gender inequality. Gender discrimination must be addressed regardless of its visibility or the cultural expectations that it is embedded in. Our awareness has been raised, now is the time to act.