The International Day of the Girl child is commemorated every year on the October 11. This day increases awareness of issues faced by girls around the world, to make the issues visible and to inspire commitments and action to promote their rights. The Day of the Girl-Child was declared by the United Nations in 2011, recognising that all over the world, particularly sub-Saharan African countries, girls are doubly marginalised and denied their rights simply because they are young and female.
With all the government, non-government organisations, and civil society efforts to uplift their situation, millions of girls still face deep-rooted inequalities and violations of their rights on a daily basis, including discrimination, harmful cultural practices such as child marriage, defilement, teenage pregnancy, school dropout, sexual assault, child poverty and poor health. Many girls feel unsafe on their way to school and others have had poor academic performances due to menstrual challenges. These inequalities ruin social change in all circles, particularly national development.
In Uganda, there are significant disparities between adolescent girls and boys with the former lagging behind in most of the socio-economic and health indicators. Nationally, 14.7 per cent of 15-19-year-old girls are neither in school nor working as compared with 2 per cent of similarly aged boys. Teenage pregnancy stands at 25 per cent, sexual debut is estimated at 16.7 years, 15 per cent girls are married by the age of 15, and 49 per cent by age 18. Besides, 23 per cent of girls are either absent or drop out of school due to menstrual hygiene management challenges and 66 per cent of all new HIV infections are contracted by adolescent girls.
Adolescent girls in conflict and emergency are even more vulnerable. Girls in this situation are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, compromising their future prospects for work and financial independence as adults. No matter their circumstances and what they are capable of, girls face a wall of resistance in their struggle to progress. We, therefore, need a wholesale change in societal attitude – and we need it now - by unlocking their potential if we are to have social change. In many societies, girls and women are often denied the opportunity to be heard.
This year’s national celebrations were preceded by among other activities, “Girls’ takeovers” facilitated by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Plan International Uganda, civil society and private sector. These bodies are supporting girls across the country to symbolically assume leadership positions in all sectors. The aim is to change perceptions about what is possible for girls, to transform power relations, showcase girls’ leadership potential when given the opportunity and for them to amplify their voices about issues affecting them.
Gaining legitimacy in formal public spaces continues to be a challenge for girls with too much power still and at many levels, concentrated in male hands. Uganda being a dominantly patriarchal society, the ideology gives power, position, and social meaning to men than women and girls, even in this 21st Century. This remains the grass root cause of gender inequality and a key driver of exclusion, marginalisation, and poverty among girls and women in Uganda.
Yet gender equality can bring about progress in all development goals – from tackling poverty, improving health and economic development. However, it is only by addressing inequalities faced by woman and girls that we will be able to achieve this progress. Participation of women and girls in the work industry sets a direct path towards poverty eradication, inclusive economic growth and sustainable development.
To achieve this goal, both the private and public sector need to invest in programmes that empower young women and girls to become much more productive and competitive in the workplaces and achieve higher levels of personal and professional growth. Hence focusing on adolescent girls is the best investment to break inter-generational poverty and improve the status of Uganda’s 1.6 million girls locked up in poverty.
A recent study by Plan International: ‘Unlock the Power of Girls Now’ notes that despite the barriers and prejudices they face, girls are eager to lead the change they need and seek action and solidarity with others to achieve it. We all have a role to play in stamping out gender inequality. When we value girls, advance their rights and invest in their future, everybody wins. So, let us all strive to unlock the power of girls and enjoy social change.
Ms Nakiwala is the communications manager at Plan International Uganda