NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable adolescent girls told researchers that they want and need better education, access to health care and less impoverished and dangerous living conditions if they are to survive, thrive and contribute to their societies, according to a survey released on Friday on the International Day of the Girl Child.
Of the 600 million adolescent girls globally, the 508 girls surveyed across 14 countries are among the 250 million living on less than $2 a day - an economic obstacle that blights hope of grasping opportunity and exacerbates the physical, emotional and social challenges facing any adolescent.
Caught between childhood and womanhood - categories well recognised by programmes and policies - adolescent girls long have seen themselves ignored and their unique needs neglected by national and international bodies and development efforts, including the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. The 79-page report “Girls’ Insights for Building a Better World” seeks to rectify this omission.
“I think it’s the first capture of girls’ voices from multiple countries articulating what they need in a variety of sectors. I think it’s the first time there’s been such a large global effort to prioritise what girls say they want and need,” Ann Warner, lead author of the report and senior gender and youth specialist at the International Center for Research on Women, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The survey was part of an effort to prioritise adolescent girls in the post-2015 development agenda and is a supporting document for The Girl Declaration, a manifesto of goals written with girls that will be presented to the U.N. on October 11.
AFTER PUBERTY, SHATTERED DREAMS
In April, July and August, researchers working with local partners and NGOs, interviewed girls between the ages of 10 and 19, in Brazil, China, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Rwanda.
Although specific problems voiced by the girls varied from country to country and between urban and rural environments, many of their concerns and experiences were remarkably similar.
In the developing world, where most of the girls surveyed live, adolescence can be a dangerous and uncertain time with dreams of education and careers shattered by early marriage and childbearing, the need to work or engage in transactional sex to support families, or the threat of rape and domestic violence.
“The clear findings across all countries that emerged was that as girls evolved from 10, 11 and 12 years old, to 17, 18 and 19 years old, they are forced to face the reality of the situation they are in and temper the aspirations that they have for their futures,” said Warner.
A critical transitional period is between ages 13 and 15, when girls reach puberty and their circumstances can change rapidly.
“They’ll often drop out of school when they’re forced to become sexually active or forced to marry. It’s an abrupt change from being seen as a child to being seen more as a woman without having any of the experience, education, access to information or resources that would actually prepare them for healthy adulthood. So dreams and opportunities start to feel out of reach for girls of that age,” Warner said.
SCHOOL OR RICE?
The voices of the girls in the 13-to-15 age group are both plaintive and defiant.
“I wish I could change the thoughts of people who have their daughters married at a young age. And I would tell them that it is harmful for girls to be married at a young age, and it could be dangerous for their lives as well,” said a girl from Pakistan.
Education, considered the single most effective tool against child marriage, was the topic discussed “most frequently and most passionately” by all the girls interviewed, according to the report.
Although progress has been made, particularly at the primary school level, 69 million adolescents globally between the ages of 12 and 15 were not attending primary of secondary school in 2011, and many of them were girls for myriad reasons, including lack of gender parity in education.
Adolescent girls said they yearn for education because of the opportunities it offers, but are thwarted by factors ranging from lack of toilet facilities and the need to work, to marriage and poverty.
“My problem is the tuition fee,” said a Filipina in the 13-to-15 age group. “We have to choose between school and a bag of rice.”
A Nigerian girl in the 10-to-12 age group said, “I have to hawk (sell goods) to earn money to pay the corrupt fees that teachers charge. It’s very dangerous, lots of girls get raped.”
RAPE AND PREGNANCY
Concerns with safety, both inside and outside the home, “came through in every country”, said Warner.
Globally, 150 million girls under the age of 18 are estimated to have experienced sexual violence, with up to 60 percent of sexual assaults against girls under the age of 15, according to the report.
“Even if the girl is not at fault, she still gets blamed,” said an Indian girl in the 16-to-19 age group.
Health also was a topic frequently raised by the girls.
Globally, 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth every year, and pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls of that age in the developing world. Girls between the ages of 15 and 24 also have HIV infection rates twice as high as their male counterparts.
“You can only go to school and get a job if you’re in good health,” said a girl from DRC.
Like many others interviewed, one girl from Ethiopia also expressed hope: “I want everyone to realize that women are capable of doing everything.”