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Adolescents and youth

International seminar puts girls' rights in the spotlight as key to development

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2033/Sweeting
In Cameroon's North Region, girls run during a physical education class at the Perma village school. UNICEF works with local partners to keep girls in school despite poverty and a traditional preference for educating boys.

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, 26 April 2010 – International experts have gathered in New York this week to find new ways to strengthen the rights of adolescent girls.

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Their three-day seminar, ‘Adolescent Girls – Cornerstone of Society: Building Evidence and Policies for Inclusive Societies,’ began today. It was organized by UNICEF and the New School Graduate Program in International Affairs.

‘Far from sight’
In this morning’s opening discussions, participants noted that nearly 2 billion people – one third of the world population – are under the age of 25. And most of these young people, including more than 500 million adolescent girls, live in poor and developing countries.

Adolescent girls are more likely than boys and men to suffer from hunger, poverty, discrimination and violence. Moreover, they are disproportionately affected by wider issues such as the global economic crisis and climate change.

“These marginalized girls are far from sight. They’re invisible,” said UNICEF Deputy Director of Policy and Practice Elizabeth Gibbons. “Discussion will help us to understand the issues and find a road map to address them.”

The New School Conference Director Alberto Minujin added: “Adolescent girls must be at the centre of development. The end goal is to enhance action. We know that that’s not an easy task, but we believe in it.”

Making informed decisions
Seminar participants today heard about successful UNICEF-supported initiatives in developing nations such as Cameroon, where young women are encouraged to get involved in local government, and India, where disadvantaged girls receive help to make informed decisions about issues such as health and early marriage.

© UNICEF/INDIA2009-00104/Khemka
In West Bebngal, India, Arfa used to work as a child labourer and her parents fixed her marriage when she turned 13. With support from UNICEF and its partners she was able to call off the marriage. Today she is an advocate for ending early marriage and child labour.

But young people who live in so-called ‘middle income’ countries have their own unique challenges.

“We have violence all over our society, in the streets, in the schools, all over. So we need our adolescent girls to know what violence is, in all its forms and nature, and to say ‘no’ to violence,” said Sepideh Yousefzadeh, an Iranian researcher at Maastrict University in the Netherlands.

Girls’ resist gender roles
At the start of the seminar, writer and New York University Law School Professor Carol Gilligan presented the latest research on adolescent girls. The data show that as they grow up, girls instinctively resist becoming part of a society that does not value them as highly as their brothers.

“This is a healthy resistance grounded in their human nature.... It’s a healthy resistance to losses that are both psychological and politically costly,” said Prof. Gilligan, who was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1996.

Prof. Gilligan said gender roles that force men to reject anything that is feminine, and roles in which men are more privileged, are “the DNA of patriarchy,” which she described as the antithesis of democracy.

“Girls’ resistance is key to the realization of what I see as a feminist vision,” she explained. “That is not an issue of women or men, or a battle between women and men, but one of the great liberation movements in human history ... the movement to free democracy from patriarchy.”




26 April 2010: Sepideh Yousefzadeh of Maastricht University speaks about the special challenges facing young women in Iran.
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26 April 2010: Writer and professor Carol Gilligan talks about the latest research on how adolescent girls see their lives.
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