Imagine being told you could be any one you want to be. You turn on the radio and hear Lizzo belting out, “If you feel like a girl then you real like a girl, Do your thing, run the whole damn world.” In the media and on your social media feed, you see many representations of yourself as powerful. All around you there are examples of girls who are changing the world like Malala, Greta Thunberg, and Amanda Gorman. But then … girls are victims of violence at an alarming rate. For instance, one in five girl activists experience fear over their physical safety. Over 142 million girls are not in the world because of a patriarchal preference for sons. The message to girls is that they must keep up, be sexy, and subservient. It is not easy to be a girl in the United States or in any place in the world. There are too many conflicting messages and situations where her body is commodified and her life is in danger.
October 11th is the International Day of the Girl, celebrating the 2.5 billion girls around the world. Since 1995, when the United Nations Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (the UN calls this their most comprehensive policy agenda for gender equality) shared its vision to end gender discrimination, there have been significant changes such as:
- The life expectancy of girls has increased by eight years.
- More girls are completing secondary school. (Girls who complete secondary school are less likely to be married as a child or to become pregnant). More countries are making education accessible.
- Fewer girls are forced into marriage as child brides or are having babies.
Objectively, girls are living better lives today than in 1995 … but there is a long way to go.
More to Fight For
Despite all the girl-empowerment anthems with the message that girls can “run the world,” the hard truth is that this progress is uneven and that some universal vulnerabilities still exist. The biggest of these vulnerabilities is that no matter where in the world a girl is, she can become a victim of violence. Girls are still at high risk of sexual violence, physical abuse, harassment, and cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Every year, more than 10 million girls are raped between the ages of 15 to 19. This number will only rise with the current state of global conflict where rape is used as a weapon of war. Girls aged five to 14 spend 160 million more hours each day as unpaid care and domestic laborers than boys their same age.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report 2011-2021 shows that girls are experiencing record levels of violence, suicide risk, and mental health challenges in the United States. Three in five girls experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and more than one in four seriously considered attempting suicide. In 2021, 60% of girls felt sad or hopeless and 25% had a plan for suicide. There is an increase in female students who miss school because they experience sexual violence, such as being forced to have sex against their will. In 2021, girls, students of color, and LGBT+ students were less likely to feel connected at school. An LA-based community organizer stated, “Even school is not a safe place for girls,” in reaction to a father’s viral TikTok featuring his story about how his 11-year-old daughter had been constantly sexually harassed at school with no one taking any action.
Even with these daunting challenges, the potential of girls making an impact on the world is clear. In fact, it is amazing how resilient girls are and what they could do if there were genuine equity and inclusion, and if there were more empowerment and less toxic masculinity. As the representative of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights declared in the 67th session of the UN Commission on Status of Women, “Nothing about us without us.” This is a reminder that girls must not also be included in policy-making, program development, community building, social change, and other things—they must lead.
Luckily, there are some good examples and best practices to follow. Especially in terms of girls’ mental health and feelings of safety, there are known “protective factors.” The more protective factors, the more likely girls will thrive. Here are five of the most prevalent protective factors:
- Education and access to education is the most powerful predictor of girls’ well-being. Online education and technology can be an opportunity for more girls to be educated. Girls who are educated are more likely to invest more in their communities.
- Parents and other adults in the family being involved in girls’ lives, such as knowing their friends, where they are going, what they are interested in, and what worries them, are a significant protective factor across all issues, research shows.
- Schools cultivating more connectedness to marginalized populations, including girls, are an important resource. Initiatives of offices of education, social services, and public health are turning schools into community hubs where a broad range of services are offered. Further, school environments must create policies that make campuses safer, provide professional development for faculty to increase racial humility and inclusivity, and invite families in as partners in their efforts.
- Scientifically based health education that is medically accurate, culturally inclusive, and developmentally appropriate is important. This allows girls to understand their physical and mental health as well as make informed choices. In order to succeed, girls need to be healthy.
- Listening to what girls are saying. Girls are using their voices more and more to report, to disclose, and to express themselves. It is important that adults support and validate their stories. Every girl needs to know her story has power.
Ordinary Magic In Action
For the International Day of the Girl, try one (or more) of these acts of ordinary magic:
- Invest in a project that is girl-led or support organizations that do.
- Mentor a girl in your local community.
- Advocate to keep girls in school by supporting legislation like the “Keeping Girls in School Act.”
- Download the International Day of the Girl toolkit full of resources like information, graphics, and activities.