25 years of uneven progress: Despite gains in education, world still a violent, highly discriminatory place for girls

Two and a half decades after the historic Beijing women’s conference, violence against women and girls still not only common, but accepted

04 March 2020
On 21 November, an adolescent girl conducts an experiment during a chemistry class in Kamulanga Secondary School in Lusaka, the capital.
UNICEF/ Karin Schermbrucker

BUCHAREST, 4 March 2020 More girls are going to school and staying in school than ever before globally, but remarkable gains in education have made little headway in helping shape a more equal, less violent environment for girls, UNICEF, Plan International and UN Women warned today in a new report.

The report, released ahead of the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, notes that the number of out-of-school girls has dropped by 79 million in the last two decades. In fact, girls became more likely to be in secondary school than boys in just the last decade.

Yet, violence against women and girls is still common. In 2016, for example, women and girls accounted for 70 per cent of detected trafficking victims globally, most for sexual exploitation. An astonishing 1 in every 20 girls aged 15-19 – around 13 million – has experienced rape in their lifetimes, one of the most violent forms of sexual abuse women and girls can suffer.

“Twenty-five years ago, the world’s governments made a commitment to women and girls, but they have only made partial good on that promise. While the world has mustered the political will to send many girls to school, it has come up embarrassingly short on equipping them with the skills and support they need not only to shape their own destinies, but to live in safety and dignity,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Access to education is not enough – we must also change people’s behaviours and attitudes towards girls. True equality will only come when all girls are safe from violence, free to exercise their rights, and are able to enjoy equal opportunities in life.”

The report, A New Era for Girls: Taking stock on 25 years of progress, is issued in the context of the Generation Equality campaign and to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the historic blueprint for advancing women’s and girls’ rights.

“It is vital that we hold governments to account on their commitment to the historic Beijing Declaration, and this report offers a wholistic picture of what the world looks like for girls 25 years on,” said Plan International Chief Executive Officer Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. “Adolescent girls, in particular, suffer heightened discrimination as a result of their age and gender and yet continue to be side-lined in their communities and in decision-making spaces, largely invisible in government policy. Empowering adolescent girls yields a triple societal benefit – for girls today, the adults they become, and the next generation of children. If we fail to grasp this and to end the discrimination girls continue to face the world over, we will stand little chance of achieving the gender equality ambitions set out in Agenda 2030.”  

“Since 1995 in Beijing, when a specific focus on ‘girl child’ issues first emerged, we have increasingly heard girls assert their rights and call us to account. But the world has not kept up with their expectations of responsible stewardship of the planet, a life without violence, and their hopes for economic independence,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “As long as women and girls have to use three times the time and energy of men on looking after the household, equal opportunities for girls to move from school into good jobs in safe workplaces are going to be out of reach. For everyone’s sake that’s got to change, along with making sure that the skills girls learn are right for the new tech and digital jobs of the future, and that the violence against them ends.” 

Girls today are at a startling risk of violence in every space – both online and in the classroom, home and community – leading to physical, psychological and social consequences. The report notes that harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) continue to disrupt and damage the lives and potential of millions of girls globally. Each year, 12 million girls are married in childhood, and 4 million are at risk of FGM. Globally, girls aged 15-19 are as likely to justify wife-beating as boys of the same age.

The report also points to concerning negative trends for girls in nutrition and health, many of which were unimaginable 25 years ago. For example, globalization, a shift from traditional diets to processed, unhealthy foods and the rapid expansion of aggressive marketing techniques targeting children, have resulted in increased consumption of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. This has contributed to an increase in overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence. Between 1995 and 2016, the prevalence of overweight among girls aged 5-19 has nearly doubled from 9 per cent to 17 per cent, resulting in nearly twice as many overweight girls today (155 million) than in 1995 (75 million).

In Romania, according to a study published in 2017 by the National Center for Evaluation and Promotion of Health Condition, the prevalence of overweight among 8-year-old girls was 9 per cent, smaller than the prevalence of overweight boys (13,50 per cent).

The data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that in 2017 there were 170,718 girls out of the primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education Romanian system, up from 162,669 in 2016 and 143,311 in 2015.

Globally, the last 25 years have seen growing concerns about poor mental health fueled in part by excessive use of digital technologies. The report notes that suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19, surpassed only by maternal conditions. Girls also remain at high risk of sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV, with 970,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 living with HIV today compared to 740,000 girls in 1995. Adolescent girls aged 10-19 still account for around 3 in 4 new infections among adolescents worldwide.

The report calls for action in the following areas:

  • Celebrating and expanding opportunities for girls of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and income and social status levels to be bold and ambitious changemakers and solution designers – actively engaging their voices, opinions and ideas in dialogues, platforms and processes that relate to their bodies, communities, education and futures.
     
  • Increasing policy and programme investments to scale up promising models that accelerate progress for and with adolescent girls aligned to today's world reality, including their skills development for the fourth industrial revolution and a generational movement to end gender-based violence, child marriage and FGM.
  • Increasing investments in the production, analysis and use of high-quality age- and sex-disaggregated data and research in areas where knowledge is limited – such as gender-based violence, 21st century skills acquisition, adolescent nutrition and mental health.

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 Notes to Editors:

Download multimedia content here.

Read more on gender equality here.

Access the report here.

For more information, please contact:
Helen Wylie, UNICEF New York, Tel: +1 917 244 2215, hwylie@unicef.org

Media Contacts

Raluca Dinu-Paicu
Media & Advocacy Officer
UNICEF in Romania
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About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.

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About Plan International

Plan International is an independent development and humanitarian organization that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. We believe in the power and potential of every child. But this is often suppressed by poverty, violence, exclusion and discrimination. And it’s girls who are most affected. Working together with children, young people, our supporters and partners, we strive for a just world, tackling the root causes of the challenges facing girls and all vulnerable children. We support children’s rights from birth until they reach adulthood. And we enable children to prepare for – and respond to – crises and adversity. We drive changes in practice and policy at local, national and global levels using our reach, experience and knowledge. We have been building powerful partnerships for children for over 80 years and are now active in more than 75 countries.

About UN Women
UN Women is the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. A global champion for women and girls, UN Women was established to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide. For more information, visit www.unwomen.org

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