Global Girlhood: Moving Towards Justice

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With the UK hosting the first ever Girl Summit in London this past summer, girlhood issues are being put front and center on the global stage. Here are four girlhood movements that are combating global inequity and working to contribute to a positive social change.


Child Marriage: Too Young to Wed


Currently, one-third of the world’s girls are married before they turn 18 years old. 1 in 9 child brides are married before their 15th birthday, with some girls being as young as 9 years old. The International Center for Research on Women, estimates that if this trend continues 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday; this is an average of 14.2 million child brides per year. Most of these young girls are neither physically or emotionally ready for marriage at such a young age. Child brides are at a greater risk of experiencing complications from pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV, and experiencing domestic violence.


Child marriage is a human rights violation that robs girls of their childhood. This practice puts millions of young girls at risk and perpetuates the standard of intergenerational poverty.  One way to end child marriage is to create child marriage free zones. These zones have been enacted in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and soon, in Malawi. The creation of these zones stems from youth standing together and refusing to accept the continuation of this practice. The development of this practice originated in Bangladesh by the Wedding Busters and is now joined by groups such as the Amani Initiative, from Uganda, and Indonesia’s Child Empowerment Groups. These movements towards child marriage free zones are coordinated internationally by Plan International.


Girls’ Education: The Road to Development


UNICEF reports that currently two-thirds of the world’s uneducated children are girls, and that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are womenIn the developing world, girls are often denied opportunities for education, especially after primary school, due to their reality of violence, poverty, and culturally linked discrimination. Denying girls access to education is not only unjust and harmful for the girl, but it is harmful to the entire country. Studies show that educating girls, past a primary school level, is the most effective way to ensure the well-being and health of women, children, and communities, and contributes to the long-term economic success of a country. When girls have the ability to go to school in a safe environment and get an education, there is a drop in the mortality rate during childbirth and pregnancy there are also fewer child marriages, a lower birthrate, a lower contraction rate of HIV and education has been shown to contribute to the breakdown of intergenerational poverty.


The need for safe access to education, for girls, in developing countries has led local groups to organize and rally for a change. Coordinated by A World at School, groups such as, Voice of New Generation in Pakistan, the Ethiopian student-led Yellow MovementMfariji Africa in Kenya, and the Street 2 School project in Kenya are striving for a positive change in their respective countries education system.


Child Labor: Rooted in Poverty


The International Labour Organization defines child labor as, “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” In developing countries, about 150 million children, ages 5-14, are involved in child labor; that is about 16% of all children in this age group. These child laborers work in domestic roles, mining, product manufacturing, construction, agriculture, scavenging, and begging. About 85 million of these children are working in dangerous situations where they are more likely to be exploited and suffer long-term, debilitating physical effects. Child labor is a result of poverty, lack of education, culture and tradition, market demand, and income shocks.


According to UNICEF90% of the children involved in domestic labor are girlsGirls begin working at an earlier age than boys, because traditional gender roles devalue a girl’s right to an education. For many parents, domestic service is seen as a good option for girls because it prepares them for marriage and adulthood. However, domestic work is the least regulated industry and girls are more vulnerable to exploitation, violence, and abuse working in private homes.


While we have seen a downward, positive trend in child labor statistics, more can be done to end a practice that, “reinforces intergenerational poverty, undermines national economies, and impedes achieving progress towards the [United Nations] Millennium Development Goals.” Organizations, such as the International Labor Organization, the M Venkatarangaiuya in India, and the Global March Against Child Labour continue to fight to eradicate the practice of child labor.


Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery


An estimated 2.4 million people, across the globe, are currently trapped in the cycle of human trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report that 50%, about 1.2 million, of these victims are under the age of eighteen. Due to the underground nature of this practice, a concrete figure is impossible to determine.  UNICEF states that, “child victims of trafficking are recruited, transported, harbored or received for the purpose of exploitation.” Many are forced into prostitution, manual labor, domestic servitude, and armed conflict. With a 32 billion dollar estimated generated annual revenue, human trafficking is the fastest growing global crime; only gun and drug trafficking are more lucrative. It is a myth that human trafficking, both domestic and international, is a problem that exists only in developing countries. The U.S. has between 14,500 and 17,500 victims entering its borders every year.  Texas is a major hub for international human trafficking and houses the most used human trafficking route, the I-10 corridor.


This underground industry largely exists due to gender, racial and ethnic discrimination and insecurity caused by armed conflict and civil strife. Children, usually from rural areas, who have minimal education, few job prospects, and are in a lower socio-economic class have the highest risk of being trafficked. Many children are lured into forced labor through a promise of a better life or are sold off by family members. The majority of trafficked girls are sexually exploited and are forced into prostitution, pornography, or sold as child brides.


Many organizations are approaching the fight to end child trafficking by focusing on education. By using a more preventive focus these organizations believe that by providing safe education to children, as well as educating community members about human trafficking, we can begin to eradicate human trafficking at its cultural roots. Groups, such as Children’s Organization of SouthEast Asia based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Indian based Prajwala, and Maiti Nepal, which works on the border of India and Nepal, are just a few of the organizations spearheading this fight.


While all of these practices are deeply rooted in poverty and discrimination, many people who live in these communities are taking a stand against the mistreatment of girls. These largely grassroots coalitions are working to expunge said practices out of the cultural norm and create an environment where girls can safely receive a quality education and lead a life free of exploitation. Despite the uphill battle they face, many strides have been made in making this dream a reality.

Vanessa Wright