Equal rights and opportunities for girls and boys help all children fulfil their potential.
Girls and boys see gender inequality in their homes and communities every day – in textbooks, in the media and among the adults who care for them.
Parents may assume unequal responsibility for household work, with mothers bearing the brunt of caregiving and chores. The majority of low-skilled and underpaid community health workers who attend to children are also women, with limited opportunity for professional growth.
And in schools, many girls receive less support than boys to pursue the studies they choose. This happens for a variety of reasons: The safety, hygiene and sanitation needs of girls may be neglected, barring them from regularly attending class. Discriminatory teaching practices and education materials also produce gender gaps in learning and skills development. As a result, nearly 1 in 4 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are neither employed nor in education or training – compared to 1 in 10 boys.
Worldwide, nearly 1 in 4 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are neither employed nor in education or training – compared to 1 in 10 boys.
Yet, in early childhood, gender disparities start out small. Girls have higher survival rates at birth, are more likely to be developmentally on track, and are just as likely to participate in preschool. Among those who reach secondary school, girls tend to outperform boys in reading across every country where data are available.
But the onset of adolescence can bring significant barriers to girls’ well-being. Gender norms and discrimination heighten their risk of unwanted pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, and malnutrition. Especially in emergency settings and in places where menstruation remains taboo, girls are cut off from the information and supplies they need to stay healthy and safe.
In its most insidious form, gender inequality turns violent. Some 1 in 20 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 – around 13 million – have experienced forced sex. In times of both peace and conflict, adolescent girls face the highest risk of gender-based violence. Hundreds of millions of girls worldwide are still subjected to child marriage and female genital mutilation – even though both have been internationally recognized as human rights violations. And violence can occur at birth, like in places where female infanticide is known to persist.
Some 1 in 20 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 – around 13 million globally – have experienced forced sex in their lifetimes.
Harmful gender norms are perpetuated at the highest levels. In some countries, they become entrenched in laws and policies that fail to uphold – or that even violate – girls’ rights, like laws that restrict women from inheriting property. Boys also suffer from gender norms: Social conceptions of masculinity can fuel child labour, gang violence, disengagement from school, and recruitment into armed groups.
What progress has been made for girls and young women?
Despite major hurdles that still deny them equal rights, girls refuse to limit their ambitions. Since the signing of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 – the most comprehensive policy agenda for gender equality – the world has seen uneven progress.
More and more girls are attending and completing school, and fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children themselves. But discrimination and limiting stereotypes remain rife. Technological change and humanitarian emergencies are also confronting girls with new challenges, while old ones – violence, institutionalized biases, poor learning and life opportunities – persist.
That’s why girls from all walks of life are boldly raising their voices against inequality. Girl-led movements are stopping child marriage and female genital mutilation, demanding action on climate change, and trail-blazing in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – asserting their power as global change-makers.
What is UNICEF doing to promote gender equality?
Reducing inequality strengthens economies and builds stable, resilient societies that give all individuals – including boys and men – the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
UNICEF builds partnerships across the global community to accelerate gender equality. In all areas of our work, we integrate strategies that address gender-specific discrimination and disadvantages.
This means partnering with national health sectors to expand quality maternal care and support the professionalization of the mostly female front-line community health workforce. It means promoting the role of women in the design and delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) ecosystems. And it means working with the education sector to ensure girls and boys thrive in their learning and find pathways to meaningful employment.
For adolescent girls especially, UNICEF invests in skills building to further their economic empowerment – as entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders. We focus on providing learning environments at a time and place that suit girls’ individual circumstances. We also work on assistive technologies for girls with disabilities, and on the expansion of digital platforms, vocational training and apprenticeships.
Supporting girls’ pathway from education to employment requires more than learning opportunities. It requires keeping girls safe from all forms of violence, in and out of school.
Our targeted initiatives to prevent and respond to gender-based violence help end child marriage, eliminate female genital mutilation, provide safe spaces, support menstrual health management, deliver HIV and AIDS care, meet psychosocial needs and more. We invest in innovative models that protect even the hardest-to-reach girls – like virtual safe spaces and apps that allow them to report violence and connect to local resources for support.
To guide investment and programming decisions at the national and global levels, we collect, quantify and share data critical for understanding ongoing and emerging challenges and solutions. What’s more, we tap into the power of youth to shape solutions for their own generation.
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Coping with COVID-19
A pandemic through a girl's eyes: 16 adolescent girls from nine countries film their lives under lockdown