11 October: Spotlight on gender inequality facing girls

Rebecca Sibanda writes education as a tool to empower young girls cannot be overstated

International Day of the Girl

11 October 2017

October 11 is commemorated annually the world over to shine the spotlight on issues of gender inequality facing young girls, as well as their access to human rights. The Day was first commemorated in 2012 and finds its origins in the United Nations (UN), which noted the need to highlight discrimination against girls. According to the UN, there are over one billion girls in the world. This commemoration provides an opportunity for society and organisations to raise awareness about the challenges faced by girls based simply on their gender. This year’s theme is “EmPOWER girls: Before, during and after conflict”.

According to UN Women - the UN organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women - an adolescent girl dies every 10 minutes as a result of violence. This is in the context of humanitarian emergencies during which gender-based violence increases. Girls are subject to sexual and physical abuse, child marriage, exploitation and trafficking. An example of this is the abduction and abuse of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram. UN Women reports that adolescent girls in conflict zones are 90% more likely to be out of school than their peers in conflict-free zones. We live in a time where conflict exists in various corners of the world and whilst all those affected deserve attention and assistance, the effect of conflict on the girl deserves particular highlighting.

The issues of inequality affecting girls are not limited to conflict in the form of war. The lack of fundamental human rights, or abuses thereof, such as the right to education, nutrition, medical attention, domestic violence, child marriage and in some areas, even Female Genital Mutilation, plague girls even in conflict-free zones.

In South Africa we are not experiencing the quintessential conflict in the form of war, but rather a different - but just as damaging - assault on female bodies. Young girls are not exempt. South Africa experiences the highest rate of femicide in the world, at five times more than the global rate. This fact has been starkly highlighted in the media over the last period, following numerous deaths of young women under the most violent of circumstances. Child rape and mutilation feature daily in our media. This is not to say that this is a new occurrence, but rather, that society has started paying attention. Furthermore, in South Africa a woman is more likely to be murdered by a current or former intimate partner, than at the hands of a stranger (AfricaCheck).

Security of the person is but one issue affecting young girls. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the highest number of out of school children of primary school age live in West and Central Africa. UNESCO also states that of the 110 million children out of school in developing nations, 60% are girls. More than 63 million girls worldwide do not have access to education. Furthermore, girls have the least access to education when compared to boys. Girls make up 54% of the non-schooled population of the world. In addition to conflict, marginalisation and poverty contribute to these numbers.

In areas where poverty is rife, such inequality exacerbates the inequality of the girl and pushes her further to the bottom of the food chain. Consider the relationship between the lack of education and child marriage - where a girl is uneducated, the probability of early and forced marriage is higher.

Closer to home, the resources and infrastructure needed for access to equal education are threatened daily. Education is a basic human right, and a tool for empowerment and social change, achievement of human dignity and other interrelated rights. Threats range from protest action in Vuwani - resulting in the burning of schools and deprivation of access - to the go-slows by teachers in Gauteng over race issues. The ripple effects of the disempowerment of the girl are felt by society in its entirety. An educated mother is more likely to advocate for the education of her girl child. Moreover, in a society with many female-headed households, the education and protection of young girls should be paramount. In addition, the earning potential of a woman is directly linked to her level of education and is a step in the direction of equal female representation in the labour market.

Education as a tool to empower young girls and reduce inequality cannot be overstated. The Centre for Constitutional Rights (CFCR) has pledged to play its part in the empowerment of girls. Annually, the CFCR, in partnership with the Salesian Life Choices Leaders’ Quest academic excellence programme, conducts a job shadowing programme for young girls who wish to enter the legal profession. The CFCR targets female learners in particular, because of the systematic marginalisation of females - not only in the education sector but also in the legal profession. It is telling that it is still referred to as the legal fraternity, yet women form a reasonable chunk of the discipline. Equipping young learners with the necessary tools with which to prepare for their future should be the mandate of all civil society.

As we acknowledge and recognise every young girl whose human rights are violated daily, thus hampering her overall development, may we join the initiative to dismantle the structures that further inequality in our society. Change is indeed possible. Almost five years ago, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was shot for wanting an education. Yesterday, she started her tertiary education at Oxford University, and her story inspires millions of girls across the world.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Right, 11 October 2017