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A truly sustainable future depends on investing in girls and women


Girl, 15, addresses UN commission

By Michele Moloney-Kitts and Denise Dunning on March 16, 2015

In many ways Emelin is your average 15-year-old girl. She loves going to school,spending time with her friends and family, and dreams of becoming a lawyer. Just last week, however, at the 59th session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, Emelin experienced something unique among her peers (and the rest of us!): She took the stage with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Melinda Gates, and the First Lady of Zambia, Ms. Esther Lungu, to share her story as a girl leader and to advocate with global leaders to prioritize girls’ rights in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

As a CSW delegate for Let Girls Lead, Emelin traveled to New York from her home in the Maya Mam town of Concepción Chiquirichapa. This small community, nestled in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, is where Emelin’s aspirations collide with a long history of violence, oppression, and discrimination against women and girls. But Emelin broke the cycle. She found her voice to fight for change, thanks to the leadership development, advocacy training, and funding she received from Let Girls Lead. Emelin worked with a group of girl leaders to convince their mayor to enact legislation and provide dedicated funding to ensure that Mayan girls can go to school, escape violence, stay healthy, and learn important skills to overcome poverty. By advocating for girls’ rights, Emelin and her friends transformed their community, and successfully challenged their status as secondary citizens relegated to housekeeping and childbearing.

For millions of girls across the world, education, safety and economic equity are too often distant dreams. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are expiring and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being drafted, making 2015 a watershed year for amplifying and codifying the rights of girls and women. Despite the clear and proven benefits, the current draft of the SDGs fails to prioritize the vital role and potential of girls and young women in advancing their communities and countries.

In the year 2015, it is appalling that less than 2¢ of every $1 in international development funding is invested in adolescent girls. The ongoing lack of political commitment demonstrates the real threat that – absent advocacy and intervention – girls and women will once again be marginalized in the new SDGs. This call to action is what brings Emelin and hundreds like her to the United Nation’s CSW, the principal intergovernmental body that advances gender equality around the world.

Our organizations, Together for Girls and Let Girls Lead, have teamed up at CSW to support the Girl Declaration, a post-2015 agenda that champions the needs, rights, hopes, and dreams of girls everywhere. Here, we highlight three critical data points that underline why the global community must invest in young women like Emelin to ensure that girls’ rights are a priority:

1. One in four girls experience sexual violence before turning 18.

Findings from the Together for Girls partnership’s Violence Against Children Surveys—the first-ever national-level data on the prevalence of emotional, physical and sexual violence against children— lay bare the stark realities of life for too many girls: one in four will experience sexual violence before turning 18-years-old; more than halfwill also experience physical violence.

Together for Girls brings together the expertise and resources of many of the strongest organizations working in development, public health, and children and women’s rights to collaborate with national governments and civil society to address this pandemic. It’s critical that violence prevention and response be included in the post-2015 development agenda, because the data is indisputable. Girls—and boys—who experience violence have a higher risk of negative health conditions later in life as well as perpetuating the cycle of violence.

In Southern and Eastern Africa, where 80 percent of new adolescent HIV infections are in girls and young women, the dual epidemics of HIV and violence are particularly tragic. In Swaziland alone, girls 13–24 who experienced sexual violence were almost four times more likely to report contracting HIV later in life and three and a half times more likely to experience complications with pregnancy compared to those who didn’t experience violence. Ending violence against girls not only has a strong impact at an individual level, it also addresses the root causes of many other global development issues.

2. If current global trends continue, 15 million girls will likely never see the inside of a


A joint report from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and UNICEF reveals that 121 million children and adolescents have either never started school or have dropped out. Some 15 million girls will never step foot in a classroom if the current trend of denying adolescents their rights to education continues.

More than 500 girls from 14 countries contributed to the Girl Declaration, a global resource for prioritizing girls’ needs in the post-2015 agenda. These girls send a clear message: education is a top priority that is essential to enabling girls to break the cycle of poverty and reach adulthood armed with relevant skills and knowledge to fully participate in economic, social and cultural life.

At Let Girls Lead, girls’ education, health, and economic empowerment go hand-in-hand. Let Girls Lead invests in visionary leaders and local organizations, leading to improved health, education, and rights for 7 million girls since 2009. We amplify thevoices and activate the power of girls through leadership development, organizational strengthening, grant-making, and advocacy to catalyze scalable impacts for girls globally. For example, girl leaders and civil society advocates recently won their fight to ban child marriage in Malawi through a strategic national campaign supported by Let Girls Lead.

3. 16 million girls ages 15 to 19 give birth every year.

 While adolescent girls struggle to navigate social, economic, and cultural challenges as they enter adulthood, too many are also becoming young mothers. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 16 million girls ages 15 to 19 give birth every year, at great risk to their own health and that of their newborn babies. For many girls, motherhood is the result of harmful traditional practices that result in adolescent marriage, sexual coercion and violence, and unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.

According to findings from the Violence Against Children Survey in Kenya, more than 30percent of young women in who experienced pressured or forced sex reported a resultant pregnancy.

Lack of access to quality sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and servicesis a major barrier to girls’ health. In consultations with the Girl Declaration, girls connected the dots between poor health, inequality, and poverty—evidence of the cyclical impact that poor health can have on a girl as well as the need to prioritize adolescent health on a global scale.

Our progress as a diverse and interconnected community on Earth depends on girls’ success, and it is imperative that we address these issues with the funding and policy priorities that they deserve. These three actions can change the lives of millions of girls and communities around the world. Girls like Emelin, who bravely raise their voices about discrimination, violence, education, and health, represent the next generation of visionaries and the true catalysts for change—on the global stage in 2015, and in their own communities for generations to come.

Get updates from girl- and youth-advocates participating in CSW by following #GirlsVoices and #GirlDeclaration on Twitter. As signatories of the Girl Declaration, the essential document for the Girls’ Voices Initiative, LGL and TfG are active players in advancing the rights of girls in the post-2015 Let Girls Lead is building a global movement of Champions who empower girls to attend school, stay healthy, escape poverty, and overcome violence. We invest in girls and their allies to achieve scalable impacts through leadership development, organizational strengthening, grant-making, and advocacy. Since 2009, Let Girls Lead’s externally validated model has contributed to improved health, education, livelihoods, and rights for more than 7 million girls through laws, programs, and funding.

Together for Girls is a global public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children, with a focus on sexual violence against girls. To address this horrific human rights violation and public health problem, Together for Girls brings together the expertise and resources of many of the strongest organizations working globally in development, public health, and children and women’s rights to collaborate with national governments and civil society.