Day of the Girl is critical, but support is needed year-round, say campaigners

From period poverty to blockchain, initiatives raising awareness of girls’ rights abound on 11 October, but long-term help is needed after Covid setbacks

Cover for #WomenRiseNFT
WomenRise, an initiative by artist Maliha Abidi, will be launched in November and she hopes it will push more girls into the tech and blockchain industries. Photograph: @Maliha_z_Art/Women Rise NFT
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International Day of the Girl is critical in highlighting girls’ rights globally, but action is urgently needed to reverse the damage of the pandemic, campaigners have said.

“Girls who were once hopeful about their futures say to us: ‘We’re not sure if we’re going to achieve our dreams now, if we’re ever going to go back to school’,” said Emily Wilson, chief executive of UK and Uganda-based organisation Irise International, which works to combat period poverty.

The Day of the Girl, celebrated each year on 11 October, is core to the charity’s funding drives, with donations on the day contributing up to 10% of its yearly income.

“There is always a risk that girls’ rights becomes an add-on,” said Wilson. “So these mainstream peaks in engagement on days like today have really helped change attitudes. The Day of the Girl gives us the opportunity to share our reports with policymakers, and push the issues we work on all year more centre-stage.”

Mwangala Mukelabai, Zambian representative for the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), who is taking over the NGO’s Twitter account to share her journey of activism for girls’ education, agreed. “Girl child day is important to me because it is on this day that we make sure the voices of girls are heard and highlight the challenges that they face to the world,” she said.

This year’s International Day of the Girl, which was adopted by the UN in 2011, makes closing the digital gender gap its focus.

Maliha Abidi, a 25-year-old Pakistan-born artist and neuroscience student, is launching Women Rise, a collection of 10,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs), unique digital assets stored on blockchain that can be bought and sold online, representing the work of female activists, artists, coders and scientists.

Maliha Abidi
Maliha Abidi is launching Women Rise to help women and girls become better represented in the growing field of digital artistic assets. Photograph: Courtesy of Maliha Abidi

“When I was looking through pages of different NFTs, one thing was so clear: this is a guys’ field,” said Abidi. “I only connected with very few women.”

Abidi said she hoped her project would drive more girls into the tech and blockchain industries. But in a world where men are up to 50% more likely to access the internet than women, more work needed to be done to ensure girls don’t miss out on the technology boom.

Abidi said governments and institutions must prioritise girls at risk of dropping out of education early, if the gender digital divide is to be closed. “When we talk about the digital world in connection to girls’ education, or girls in general, it’s not just about connecting girls to the internet.” Leaders must ensure girls interested in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects can stay in those fields, all the way from school to university to a job, she said. “It’s about helping them reach that finishing point.”

Aava Murto
Teenager Aava Murto assumed the post of Finnish prime minister for 24 hours on Day of the Girl 2020. Photograph: Heikki Saukkomaa/AP

On this year’s Day of the Girl, campaigners have also called for urgent action to undo – or at least minimise – the harm caused by the pandemic.

Many countries have made great strides in girls’ rights over the past 10 years. In 2015, the UN made gender equality one of its 17 sustainable development goals for 2030. In 2014, the African Union launched a continent-wide campaign to end child marriage, encouraging its 55 member states to pass laws, make action plans and support communities.

In the run-up to Day of the Girl last October, girls’ equality charity Plan International kickstarted its #FreeToBeOnline campaign. It led to more than 66,000 people signing an open letter urging social media companies to protect girls from abuse and harassment.

Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp agreed to team up with young people to discuss solutions for girls’ online safety.

In 2017, 24 girls in Ecuador, supported by Plan International, drafted a resolution addressing violence against girls to the national assembly.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously curtailed hard-fought gains.

Wilson said in Uganda, Irise has had to cancel its menstruation education programmes in schools, which remain closed. The organisation has instead diverted resources to tackling the rise in child marriage and teenage pregnancies among the estimated 10 million Ugandan girls who have missed out on an education since last March.

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Olutope Olatilewa, the Nigeria-based founder of mentoring programme African ChangeMakers Women Network, said: “Society is confused about where to place the girl child; she is caught in between the categories of women’s rights and children’s rights. But little visibility is given to girls’ rights specifically.”

Her mentoring scheme across 54 African countries aims to build leadership skills. “But even that is not enough – we are just scratching the surface of what we must do.”

The global network Girls Not Brides said the spike in donations and support for girls received on 11 October needs to continue throughout the rest of the year for there to be long-term change.

Children protest against child marriage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 November 2018.
Children protest against child marriage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13 November 2018. The pandemic has hampered progress towards ending the practice. Photograph: Ahmad Yusni/EPA-EFE

While rates of child marriage have gone down over the past decade, the decline is not fast enough to end the practice by 2030, said Nerida Nthamburi, a Kenya-based partnership officer for Girls Not Brides. The group estimates that progress must become six times faster to meet the UN target.

The Day of the Girl is critical to the movement, said Nthamburi, because “it creates a deliberate platform that focuses attention on the seldom-heard voices of girls who know best – girls who have felt the pain and live through the risk [of child marriage] every day”.

“Unless we accelerate progress as a global community – governments, leaders, parents and religious leaders – we are likely to see a rollback,” said Nthamburi.

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