Women’s and girls’ rights: what have we accomplished and what’s at stake now?

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Reading Time: 4 minutes

In 1995, the world adopted the Beijing Declaration – the largest comprehensive policy for ending discrimination against women and girls. Twenty-five years later, there have been tremendous gains for women’s and girls’ rights but issues such as access to education and gender-based violence remain rife and are being exacerbated by the reality of COVID-19.   

Here at Plan International, we believe girls are poised to take on the future. They represent a tremendous engine for transformational change towards gender equality and, as such, deserve the full support of the global community to be empowered to successfully transition to adulthood with their human rights intact.  

Girl showing off shirt with words “Gender Equality starts with us” printed in the back

Because of an increased focus on gender equality and girls’ rights in the past two decades, data shows that we’re making progress. Globally, fewer girls are getting married and more girls are in school.  

Here we break down the key wins for women’s and girls’ rights in the 21st century when it comes to education, combating gender-based violence and increasing access to healthcare.  

Progress for Gender Equality


Education not only opens the doors of opportunity, but also being literate can help girls articulate their struggles, make informed decisions and take determined actions to overcome the barriers they face. These are the tremendous gains we’ve made for girls’ education thus far:  

  • The number of out-of-school girls has dropped by 79 million in the last two decades.   
  • Nearly 2 in 3 girls are enrolled in secondary school compared to 1 in 2 in 1998.  
  • The number of female youths aged 15–24 years who are illiterate declined from 100 million to 56 million between 1995 and 2018 
Bright classroom full of African students, girl in the center of the photo smiles behind her school
Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence (GBV) disproportionately affects girls and women, particularly through certain forms of violence such as child marriage, intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation, ‘honour’ killings or trafficking. When girls and women experience GBV, the impacts are lifelong. It increases their risk of HIV, unintended pregnancy, alcohol abuse, suicide and depression. 

But there is hope for change as data shows progress has been made toward ending certain forms of GBV:  

  • Since 1995, the proportion of young women who were married as children has declined globally from 1 in 4 to approximately 1 in 5. 
  • Declines of child marriage rates are happening in countries where large numbers of girls are at risk, such as in South Asia. In that region, the practice of child marriage has almost halved in the last 25 years, from 59% to 30%.  
  • The prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has declined over the past 25 years 
  • In countries in which at least 50 per cent of girls and women have undergone FGM, opposition to the practice is growing. 
  • Today, adolescent girls are more likely than older women to oppose the continuation of FGM – suggesting that girls can lead the way towards abandonment of the practice. 
Access to healthcare

Access to healthcare is critical for adolescent girls as pregnancy and childbirth is the leading cause of death for adolescent girls worldwide.  

Not only is pregnancy and child birth deadly, it can also put an end to a girl’s right to stay in school, pursue gainful employment and realize her full potential – which in turn contributes to continuing a cycle of poverty across generations.  

young African woman holds her baby boy

Since 1995, there have been advances for girls when it comes to maternal health, as well as sexual reproductive health. Here are the numbers:  

  • Over the past 25 years, the adolescent birth rate has declined from 60 births per 1,000 girls aged 15–19 years, to 44 births per 1000, worldwide for girls 15-19. 
  • South Asia has made the most progress in reducing early childbearing since 1995, with the adolescent birth rate dropping from 82 to 26 births per 1,000 girls. 
  • Sub-Saharan Africa experienced a 22 per cent decline in the adolescent birth rate during this period.  
  • Worldwide, the number of new HIV infections among adolescent girls has halved since 1995

How is COVID-19 setting back this progress?

The global community has good cause to celebrate the progress achieved over the last quarter century in the name of girls’ rights. But we cannot lose sight of the many challenges girls still face every day and the significant gaps when it comes to ensuring that progress for girls is even and steady.   

We are also currently living in an unprecedented time and evidence suggests that COVID-19 is likely to derail decades of hard-won progress towards the rights of girls and women.  


The pandemic is impeding girls from getting an education, pursuing opportunities for economic empowerment, accessing basic sanitation and vital healthcare, as well as putting girls and women at greater risk of all forms of violence and abuse. It’s keeping girls from everything they’ve worked so hard for.  

Today, thirteen million girls are at risk of becoming child brides, two million girls are at risk of experiencing female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C), and millions are at risk of never returning to school once they reopen. These are just a few examples of the potent threats girls are facing in the wake of COVID-19; setbacks that drastically compromise their rights, safety and can alter the course of their lives. 

What you can do to help stop the setback

As one of the leading organizations in Canada advocating for children’s rights and equality for girls, we know there is a solution within reach. Standing with and investing in girls is a powerful solution and response to this crisis.  

Together, we can and must stop the setback.  

Learn more about stopping the setback

Sources for data points: