Celebrate International Day of the Girl

It’s now well-worn wisdom that the best investment a country can make is in its women and girls. Well-worn, but not necessarily ubiquitous.

Though the concept is gaining traction through awareness raising tools such as the recently premiered film Half the Sky (a PBS documentary helmed by New York Times columnist and author of the book by the same name, Nicholas Kristof) we often struggle to find consensus on the importance of investing in women and girls as a pathway to prosperity and security both at home and abroad, rather than as an afterthought to be squeezed in if the budgetor status quoallows.

Enter International Day of the Girl Child, a newly launched campaign holding as its mission, “To help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

In the UN General Assembly Resolution declaring October 11, 2012, the first annual International Day of the Girl Child, it was recognized “that empowerment of and investment in girls, which are critical for economic growth, the achievement of all Millennium Development Goals, including the eradication of poverty and extreme poverty, as well as the meaningful participation of girls in decisions that affect them, are key in breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence and in promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of their human rights.” This year’s theme, Ending Child Marriage, highlights the fact that an estimated 64 million women are married before the age of 18; one-third of those are married before age 16. In developing countries, the leading cause of death for girls ages 15-19 is pregnancy-related complications. And 90 percent of births to girls in that age group happen within marriage.

A few days before our first ever International Day of the Girl Child, CARE President/CEO Helene Gayle passed through Chicago in advance of her Chicago Ideas Week panel discussion on “Giving: One Matters.” Before she shared the stage with Edward Norton, she took a few minutes to share her perspective on the need to invest in girls, on the importance of ending child marriage, and how we, as Chicagoans, can help put these principles into action today.

What does “International Day of the Girl Child” mean to you?
It’s a great opportunity to raise awareness around the issues related to girls. There’s a lot of focus on how women are making a difference in the world, but we haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that if you can make a difference in girls, you have an even greater impact, because you’re really looking at how you tackle things at the very initial stages. If you educate a girl, her whole future changes. It will change her family’s future and it will really make her a different woman.

Why is ending child marriage a pertinent theme with which to launch this day?
One of the reason that child marriage is an important issue is that it really helps the world focus on a variety of different ways in which girls and adolescents aren’t able to reach their full potential. The idea that a 13- or 14-year-old girl is forced into marriage is something that wakes people up. Within child marriage are a lot of issues: The issue of girls not having access to education, not having their life as equally valued as sons. It highlights what happens to young girls when they are married and forced into starting families when their bodies aren’t mature; it often leads to things like exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, HIV or fistula. Focusing on child marriage allows us to look at these other issues as well, whether it’s education of girls, healthcare, access to health services, all the things that can make a difference in the life of a girl. The approach to ending child marriage is an integrated approach.

When I attended the CARE National Conference in 2010, one of the bills being discussed was the International Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2009. That bill failed to pass, partially amid last-minute concerns that “funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws.” Now, that bill has been reintroduced as the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2012. How do you feel about where it stands today?
The support is gathering. In this time when there’s so much concern around our debt and public spending, there was a lot of concern about the financial side of it (in 2010). In some people’s minds, it was linked to other controversial issues. But there was bipartisan support, there was support even among fairly conservative members of both parties. Most people, when they think about a 13- or 14-year-old girl, they think about their own daughters, and whether they’d want their own daughters to end up in a situation like this.

The bill is moving forward. We’re happy that there’s both congressional support for the bill as well as within the administration and Secretary Clinton – her department is taking a real leadership role in looking at ways beyond just legislation [in regard to] prevention of child marriage.

What will the bill do?
One, provide technical capacity to help communities understand why this is a harmful practice and provide resources for educating girls. A lot of it is focused on educating communities, working with families, educating girls, giving them opportunities. And also looking at enforcing laws. Many of these countries already have laws that prohibit underage marriage, but they aren’t upheld, citizens don’t know about them, they don’t know that they can hold their governments accountable for enforcing these laws. It’s a comprehensive approach: looking at the policies, making sure families and communities are aware of their rights, and making sure that girls have access to education so they can have a different future.

Expand on that last point. How do you work to ensure that laws are enforced and families are aware of their rights?
First, educating communities about the harmful nature of the practice. And then, giving communities support to start looking at changing those (practices). If child marriage is something that’s done within a community, within a culture, working with those communities to start understanding the dynamics of child marriage. Sometimes it’s just educating a population around that, and then educating them about their rights.

It’s also about working with the state department (within a country) to have child marriage something that is reported on, just like human trafficking or other things that we require countries that we do business with to report on. That’s another way of putting pressures on governments to actually uphold the laws that they have on the books.

Can you share any success stories?
In an area of Tanzania where child marriage is very prevalent…by working with families, with communities and getting the girls educated, we started to see declines in the rate of child marriage. As simple as it sounds, just educating families and communities around the harmful aspects of their daughters getting married early, and then emphasizing the value of girls and why is it important to get an education so they start changing their ideas and mentalities. We’ve done that in Ethiopia and India, and other areas where child marriage is very prevalent: working with both the girls themselves – helping them to understand why getting an education is important, what they can do with their lives when they get an education, and using that education – and working with the families, the communities, the educational system. All those things to help reinforce the value of a girl and the value of getting an education, starting a family later in life, using that education to start earning income so that she’s seen as a valued member of the community.

I see a lot of commonalities in the themes we’re discussing – how education and economic empowerment can help a girl see herself and others see her as a valued part of a community – here at home. What can people in Chicago do to recognize the International Day of the Girl Child and these issues?
We do have some of the same issues here in the U.S., where sometimes girls don’t value themselves highly. I think it’s a good opportunity for girls in this country to start thinking about what do they want for their future – what their hopes are, what their dreams are – and how they can also start taking the same sorts of steps to have different outcomes and different futures.

And for adults?
Mentor. Take a girl out who may not be a family member, a young girl who you know might value mentorship. Volunteer. Be a big sister. There are a lot of ways men and women can give young girls a sense of hope and a sense of future.*

*If you’re interested in mentoring a teen girl in Chicago to help her become confident, college-bound and carer-ready, Step Up Women’s Network has Saturday mentoring opportunities available on October 13 and October 27. Sign up on our online calendar, or email Whitney at whitney@suwn.org.


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."