BRUSSELS — Girls who receive a quality education are more likely to lead healthy lives, yet on International Day of the Girl on October 11, more than 130 million girls worldwide aren’t in school.
In Brussels, policymakers and activists are meeting throughout the week to discuss some of the biggest barriers to girls’ well-being, such as teen pregnancy, sexual and gender-based violence, child marriage, and school dropout rates.
A report from ONE released Wednesday set out the stark gender gaps in education worldwide. It found that just two of the 10 countries where it is hardest for girls to get an education — which include South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Niger — are meeting the target set by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) of spending 20 percent of the national budget on education. Meanwhile, education’s share of official development assistance has dropped from 13 percent to 10 percent since 2002.
Irena Andrassy, deputy chief of staff for the European Union’s Development Commissioner Neven Mimica, told participants at the Girls’ Summit in the Belgian capital on Wednesday that the EU would “top up” funding for the GPE next year, without giving specifics. Andrassy also pledged additional funding to Education Cannot Wait, a fund designed to provide education in emergency situations.
But the ONE report noted that funding is not the only obstacle to girls’ education: for example, Burundi has the world’s lowest GDP per capita at $286, but outperforms 18 other countries with higher GDPs when it comes to girls’ education, according to the NGO’s index.
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For many participants at events in Brussels this week, the focus is on the social barriers that can hold girls back.
As an official from the EU’s development department, DEVCO, told a lunchtime conference on violence against girls on Tuesday, “one point that comes across very strongly is traditions and social norms. No matter what you discuss with the government, no matter what you put in the policy, how do you implement that? What can we do to change these norms?”
Andrassy agreed, saying: “We think that one of the major things is not only to change laws, and to give the frameworks, or to monitor the funding, but it’s to change the mindset. To change social norms and mindsets is the most difficult. And you cannot do that by legislating. That has to be a social movement, that has to come from the private, from the personal, from the emotional. That has to come from the heart. No law can [do] that. Or at least I haven’t seen one [that can].”
At the Girls’ Summit, Tshidi Likate, a girls’ ambassador from Save the Children South Africa, said girls need better information about how to continue their education.
“You get some dropouts due to bad grades,” Likate said. “Girls are being discriminated if they don’t achieve As or Bs, but there is more to life. We have different interests in life, we have different gifts … What is being done for me to focus on what I excel in, and improving on what I don’t excel in?”
She suggested that working with parents could be key. “Especially in the villages, our parents grew up differently ... everything was a closed book, whereas today everything is an open book,” she said. “Every time we speak the truth as young girls, we are labeled as disrespectful because we actually touch topics that they define as taboos. So the minute we accept and work towards taking an action, those traditional ... norms will actually end."
In addition, Likate pointed to the knock-on effects of poverty on girls’ education. A lack of sanitary towels or a proper breakfast, for instance, could dissuade girls from attending school.
Sreypich Houen, a teenage activist from Cambodia, said “persistence” is important in changing attitudes. By going from village to village advocating for girls’ health issues, she was initially viewed as a “bad girl,” but “I didn’t care,” she said. Finally people began calling her “teacher” — a sign of respect.
Lyda Chea, World Vision campaign manager, also spoke about the impact of violence in schools, with teachers in Cambodia often viewing emotional and physical violence as an acceptable form of disciplinary action, she said. Citing a survey of students in Cambodia conducted by World Vision, Chea said only when a child bleeds or has their skin torn is an act considered violence. And she said violence in the home creates a vicious circle, normalizing the same behavior at school.
World Vision’s Celebrating Families initiative seeks to engage with parents by showing another way to relate to children. “Speaking of love, speaking of hope, instead of each time raising your voice or threatening your child, and it works,” Chea said. Families involved in the project “are now starting to understand their own child better, recognize the signs of distress,” and so they are “actually preventing violence from happening.”
The latest tool in the EU’s gender work is the Spotlight Initiative, announced in New York in September. The 500 million euro ($519 million) trust fund — financed mostly by the EU but jointly run with the United Nations — will support projects tackling all forms of violence against women and girls. Any country can contribute to the fund, and states within and beyond the EU, including Canada, have already expressed interest.
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