Opinion: EU can stop the global rollback of girls' rights

A young girl writes on a blackboard. Photo by: GPE Kelley Lynch / CC BY-NC-ND

Most girls in Europe have their whole future ahead of them. They are busy being kids. Making friends, playing sport, going to school. This is all normal, natural — how it’s supposed to be, right?

For a girl from Pibor in South Sudan — let’s call her Gola — her future looks very different. She was sold into marriage. The price was 45 cows, but the cost was Gola’s freedom, her opportunity, and her happiness.

Gola’s story is shared by millions of girls. They are the largest excluded group in the world. They face discrimination and abuse simply for being young and female. And this double discrimination can destroy their whole lives.

The statistics are hard to comprehend. Globally over 30 million girls are out of school, more than 120 million girls have been sexually assaulted, and some 650 million women already suffer the consequences of child marriage.

Why is this happening? Simply because not enough is being done to challenge the harmful social and gender norms that underpin the phenomenal discrimination against girls and women the world over. This is why the rights of girls to education, to decide whether and who to marry, to live free from violence, and to decide what happens to their bodies, are still under threat.

Girls’ rights are being challenged in so many countries in the world — even in Europe. It’s part of a general roll-back on human rights and a shrinking space for civil society. Only 4 percent of people worldwide now live in societies rated as “open,” according to the CIVICUS Monitor of civic space. The anatomy of a global crackdown is clear to see.

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Now is the time to take a stand against these regressive forces and the EU has a critical role to play. There are, of course, massive movements already going on, such as #MeToo, and brave rights champions working tirelessly in communities the world over, with girls often leading the way. Governments outside the EU, such as Canada, are also doing their bit.

The EU has the global gravitas those movements badly need. Still the biggest development donor on earth, EU priorities and programs have the power to reshape the world for the better. Still a strong and credible voice for human rights on the global stage, the EU must put its values before its interests. The values of equality, dignity, and liberty must guide the work of the EU and act as a rallying force for Europeans.

That is why the European Development Days are so important. EU and global development leaders are gathered in Brussels for EDD to put “Women and Girls at the Forefront of Sustainable Development,” where they have a unique opportunity to take a stand. To unite against this global rollback of girls’ rights and then commit to rolling forward to a future where the gender equality envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals could be realized.

To seize this chance, there are three things the EU needs to do.

1. Champion the rights of girls and women across the globe. Plan International is doing its part. We’re building a global movement with and for girls. We’ve built the most comprehensive research platform on the rights of girls in international laws and treaties to assist policymakers and others in their work. Now, we need EU actors to step up and join us as girls’ rights advocates and challenge the hugely unequal power relations between men and women, and boys and girls.

2. Set an example for the world to follow. We need girls’ rights to be at the forefront of every aspect of the EU’s agenda. Each and every day, EU countries are doing powerful things at home that bring girls closer to equality — just look at what Ireland has achieved in repealing its ban on abortion. Now the EU must do the same externally.

3. Invest in girls, both at home and abroad. The EU is already supporting girls. In Pibor, Plan International and ECHO have partnered to create an inspiring inclusive education program that helps many local girls. To give them the chance of a better life that was denied to Gola. Yet the EU can do much more by truly mainstreaming and prioritizing girls’ rights throughout all its development work.

A very powerful starting point would be for the EU to commit to “gender proof” the next EU budget. It must also commit to ambitious new priorities for the economic and political empowerment of girls and track and monitor progress against achieving them. At Plan International, we have made it our mission to make sure 100 million girls learn, lead, decide, and thrive in the next five years. We hope the EU will stand shoulder to shoulder with us for girls.

Let’s start today.  

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen

    Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen has been CEO of child rights organization Plan International since September 2015. Before joining Plan International, Ms. Albrectsen served as the U.N. assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director for management at the United Nations Population Fund. Previously, she was ambassador and undersecretary for management at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.