Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 130 million girls around the world were not in school, and now 11 million girls might not go back to school this year. These are daunting numbers that represent real girls who are being denied their right to an education and the opportunity to grow to their full potential.
The need of girls are not often heard or prioritized by those in decision-making positions. Time and time again research has shown that despite their best efforts, girls are unable to overcome prejudice, aggression and misogyny.
In this reality, it is no surprise that girls cannot decide how long their days in school will last. From menstruation to forced marriage, girls face numerous barriers that are keeping them from pursuing a future they want.
But gender inequality doesn’t just impact the lives of girls in some countries; it’s an injustice that prevails in all corners of the world.
The most powerful weapon we have in the fight for equality is the untapped potential of millions of girls – who are ready and eager to champion change in their communities.
Champions of Change
Plan International has a program called Champions of Change that promotes gender equality, girls’ rights and change in social norms through youth engagement and peer-to-peer groups with boys and girls aged 10-19.
Working both with girls and boys, the goal of this program is to empower girls about their rights and to engage boys in a conversation about gender equality, harmful gender norms, their rights and the role they play in being allies for change. Champions of Change also works to foster intergenerational dialogues to ensure that the youth’s commitment to gender equality is supported by their families and their communities.
“Champions of Change is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me,” says Joan.
In Joan’s community, teen pregnancy is a common occurrence. “The parents believe that when a girl starts her menstruation, she’s old enough to become a mother or a wife,” says Joan. But Joan is a Champions of Change facilitator and passionately challenges such attitudes.
Early and forced marriage remains a large barrier to education for girls and often stands in the way of them pursuing their dreams. But girls like Pauline are pushing the confines of gender norms and carving a path to a brighter future for themselves. Pauline was forced to drop out of school at 15 when her widowed mother could no longer afford the fees.
“My mother told me it would be best to look for a man so he could buy me things I needed, like sanitary pads.” The man’s family paid just $40 for her to become his wife and a year later, she had a baby boy.
Pauline was forced to stay at home and felt frustrated and alone. But then she joined a local girls’ rights club set up by Plan International and things started to change. She received training to identify and help solve some of the common problems girls were facing in her community, such as sexual harassment.
Before long, she was elected chair of her district club. “I felt so empowered,” she says. “It gave me the confidence to talk to my uncles about how I wanted to go back to school.”
With the moral and financial support of her uncles, Pauline is now training to become a nursery school teacher at a local college. Her ambition is to earn enough money to fund not only her son’s education but that of her sister’s children as well.
Allies in the fight for equality
Girls are ready to lead change but that change will only be sustainable if men and boys are on board and walking alongside them. This is not always an easy take because both men and boys may face stigma and backlash from their community if and when they stand up for girls’ and women’s rights. But our Champions of Change participants understand that any negative reaction to their advocacy is just an example of how much their voices are needed.
Abel grew up in a family of seven girls and he credits this as his inspiration to campaign for girls’ rights in Uganda.
“In our community, women are looked down on, which is not good – they are human beings just like us men are and deserve to be treated equally,” he says.
Through Plan International’s Champions of Change project, Abel and his fellow campaigners set up a program whereby out-of-school girls could earn money by making and selling handbags, which they used to help them go back to school.
Despite the positive impact of this program, Abel has suffered because of his involvement.
“I face stigma as a man advocating for gender equality since men in Uganda need to see themselves as superior and women as inferior,” he says.
Abel dreams of a Uganda in which men treat women equally. We share his dream and will continue to work to make it a reality everywhere we work.
COVID-19 is unraveling progress
Great gains had been made to advance gender equality and girls’ rights before COVID-19 but the pandemic is undoing this progress.
The first step in reaching gender equality is making education accessible for all girls. Education is a doorway to a brighter future for girls. A future that they decide; one in line with their own dreams.
Questions related to this story:
- What is gender equality?
- How do periods impact girls’ education?
- How we do we help girls stay in the classroom?
- Why are millions of children out of school?
- Why women are most impacted by COVID-19