By Vivian Onano, for International Day of the Girl Child
My name is Vivian Onano, partnerships Manager at SEED Project, Global Youth Ambassador at WaterAid and Women Deliver Young Leader. I was honored and delighted to be a part of the launch of the 2016 GEM Report in Kigali, Rwanda, and the launch of the GEM Report Gender Review on education and gender equality last week. Many thanks to UNESCO for inviting me to be part of this important launch and discussion. Achieving education and gender equality are issues I am very passionate about.
I firmly believe that without access to quality and safe education, we will not achieve gender equality. Without gender equality, our goal of having a world of inclusive, peaceful and prosperous communities will not be realized. Ensuring every child gets a good education is the basic foundation for a successful future.
Access to education should never be determined by one’s sex or social status. I believe beyond doubt that education is a fundamental human right. However, the reality that faces us is that there are many young girls who have been denied an opportunity at having a better life because of their gender. Although huge strides have been made towards achieving gender parity in primary education, there is significant work to be done to close the gap in secondary and tertiary education.
A discussion on making education accessible for young girls is incomplete without addressing obstacles such as: gender violence, early marriage, teenage pregnancy, poverty, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, lack of proper nutrition.
Approximately 40 billion hours are spent each year—mostly by women and girls—collecting water. This is time they are unable to spend in school acquiring literacy, numeracy, vocational training, or simply socializing. Therefore, solving the problem of access to clean water and sanitation are very critical for girls to stay in school.
Statistics show that a high percentage of girls from disadvantaged communities drop out of school when they reach puberty. This is partly due to many schools not having clean toilets for personal hygiene during menstruation as well as providing privacy and dignity. It is a shame that menstruation which is a biological cycle that should be celebrated and embraced has led to many girls losing their self-confidence and esteem.
In countries such as South Africa, the rate of teenage pregnancy has been on the rise at an alarming rate; in 2011 there were 68,000 cases, in 2012 it increased to 81,000, and 2013 the number skyrocketed to 99,000 an equivalent of 271 cases of teenage pregnancies a day. This is unacceptable for any society. Poverty plays a major role. In the report by Statistics South Africa, it was stated that some parents collude with the teachers and get paid not to report these incidences to the legal authorities. Making sure girls achieve their highest potential in life is as important as it is for the boy child and we have to support them.
Women and girls make up half of the world’s population yet represent 70% of the world’s poor. This is a sobering figure that reflects the dire situation that women are subjected to, largely in part to having no access to education. We cannot keep the status quo and fold our hands; neither can we continue to have the face of a woman associated with poverty.
It is important to make sure that our young girls are empowered and have their own voice to be able to fully participate in their communities. For that to happen we have to make sure that early marriage is addressed from the grassroots level to government institutions. 39,000 girls under the age of 18 become brides every day; this is a violation of human rights. These numbers are not just statistics they are real human beings who deserve an opportunity at a better life but have been silenced by traditions and poverty.
A week ago, I received a text from a friend in Kenya informing me that one of the girls I had been assigned to mentor was secretly married off to a 52-year-old man. Vivian, is a 15-year-old girl who was really determined to stay in school and make the most of it. When I first met her in June this year, she was full of life and great aspirations for herself. I was really heartbroken to learn that the father colluded with the teachers to have her married off. Vivian is one of the many girls out there who face injustice every day when all they want is a better education for them to flourish. There is need to have firm legal systems in place to eradicate this form of violence; it is good that Gambia and Tanzania this year officially banned early child marriage.
For us to achieve gender equality there has to be intentional investment in women and girls. We have to ensure that our societies are inclusive and recognize women’s voice and ability to contribute to the societal well-being. Gender inequality is deep-rooted in our societies as a result of exclusion and undermining of women’s potential. Women have to be empowered as leaders for us to move forward. Women representation in politics is still very low even though progress has been made since Beijing Conference in 1995. Back then we only had 10.5% women parliamentarians and today the number has increased to 22.4% but that is not enough.
We need male leaders to mentor women and showcase the incredible work that they continue to do in the society. In the fight for gender equality men have a big role to play, and achieving it will empower them more. Every strong man would like to have a strong woman in their life, and that starts by recognizing their rights and providing an equal platform to perform and thrive. UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign that is rallying men and boys to join the fight for gender equality is a great initiative.
We have to work towards eradicating gender violence that continues to stagnate development. Violence has been used to threaten women who aspire to join politics, and in war torn zones it has been used to silence women. Last year alone, there were 41,516 rape cases in South Africa; we cannot be a society that tolerates rape culture. There is need to create open and safe spaces where survivors can share their stories and seek help.
Education provides an important foundation for achieving gender equality. And lack of it, perpetuates a cycle of poverty. I am very proud to share that my mother recently went back to school, and graduated in May this year with a Bachelors in Public Health. Holistic investment in women and girls is a prerequisite for achieving inclusive and flourishing economies. We each have a strong role to play in ensuring that achieving gender equality is a reality; and every child has access to quality, relevant and safe education before 2030.