As UNICEF programme specialists in Ghana noted in a January blog, “when girls are healthy and educated, entire societies benefit from economic growth, poverty reduction and improvements in children’s well-being – bolstering prospects for the next generation,” and I couldn’t agree more.
I’m fortunate to come from a family where women and girls were afforded the same opportunities as boys and men. My mother was among the first women to graduate from Jodphur National University and my own daughter is pursuing a PhD. Yet not all women and girls in India or around the world are offered the same or have access to the same resources. For every girl pursuing an education, there is another who is instead compelled to focus on caring for and working to support her family, and I’ve witnessed such disparity in impoverished areas of my own city, mere kilometres from my home. And I’m particularly aware of how such inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
UNICEF reports that schoolchildren around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours – and counting – of in-person learning since the start of the pandemic. And more specifically, studies show that pandemic disruptions are affecting girls the worst as they’re forced to focus more on chores and have less access to family support for educational resources like tutors or mobile devices as compared to boys, ultimately making them the least likely to return to school after the pandemic. This is why I’m in accord with UNICEF USA’s new campaign, “Keep Girls in School,” which is working to raise awareness of the critical window we have as schools re-open to make sure girls return to their former classrooms and receive all the benefits and safety school brings. Notably, the Malala Fund estimates that an additional 20 million girls may drop out due to the pandemic – adding to the nearly 130 million girls worldwide who were already not attending school.
This is also why Rotary is placing a focus on empowering girls worldwide every day. From e-learning, early childhood development, and school infrastructure and sanitation improvements to improve literacy rates in India, to improving menstrual health and hygiene resources for girls in Kenya to keep them in school, our 1.4 million members recognize there are many ways to affect positive change and support girls across the globe.
Despite the success of these projects – and many others – we recognize that working towards global gender equity (as outlined in the United Nations Gender Equality Sustainable Development Goal) requires the broader, ongoing commitment of governments, public and private institutions, and other NGOs and nonprofits.
To that end, we must continue to apply lessons learned from initiatives that are employing a gender equity lens such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), in which Rotary partners with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
The GPEI’s 2022–2026 Polio Eradication Strategy pointedly acknowledges the critical role that female health workers play in building community trust and driving vaccine acceptance. In Afghanistan and Pakistan – the remaining two countries where wild polio is endemic – "recruiting, training and retaining women as vaccinators, community mobilizers and surveillance officers…is considered essential to campaign success.”
Accessing children who need to be immunized is often dependent on the tireless work of female health workers, and I’ve seen this firsthand in India over the years as I’ve been honoured to participate with such workers in both National Immunization Days (NIDs) and door-to-door immunizations across the country, from West Bengal to Bihar. To empower a women-led workforce at the forefront of immunization efforts, more investments are needed to improve women’s access to empowerment opportunities and to respond to women’s specific needs.
Clearly, the GPEI is on the right course as polio cases have been reduced by 99.9% since the effort was launched more than 30 years ago, and I am inspired to continue to apply a gender equity lens to all Rotary and partner-led initiatives and projects. In that vein, we are discussing the multiple dimensions of gender inequities at our annual event with the United Nations – this year with UNICEF – and offer concrete actions that our audience members can take to help empower girls.
Although there is much work to be done, I’m confident that if we remain focused on addressing these inequalities and emphasize the value of females in society, together we truly can improve the status of girls worldwide.