The latest Global Gender Gap Report – which tracks how well different countries are doing at reducing the gender gap in areas such as economic participation, access to education, political empowerment and health – shows that progress is being made when it comes to gender equality.

But still, the progress is too slow. Findings in the report suggest we might have to wait up to 81 years for gender parity in the workplace. This means that young people today may never live to see a time where both men and women are treated equally in the world of work.

So what are young people around the world saying about this? To find out, we spoke to 7,000 adolescent girls and boys in 11 countries about girls’ opportunities. We asked them about their lives. About their priorities. About their opportunities. About their challenges.

What did they tell us?

They told us that things are slowly starting to get better for girls. Girls are now dreaming of lives beyond being wives and mothers. They are dreaming of education, jobs and a better future. Of the girls we spoke to, 41% of them said girls in their communities “always” or “often” get to complete nine years of education. One adolescent girl from Egypt said that her parents “like education, because they are both uneducated and they want us to be the best and to be highly educated”. Another teenage girl from Egypt confirmed that things are getting better: “Parents don’t want what happened to them to happen with their girls”.

Things are improving. But it is happening slowly. One in three girls said that they will not get to decide when they become pregnant. One adolescent girl from Pakistan said that “girls do not have decision-making power over pregnancy. The male says to them, you are machines to give birth to children.” Of the interviewed girls, only 38% said that in their communities, girls “always” or “often” decide when they marry.

Across the 11 countries included in this research, violence was a primary concern. Girls seldom feel free from violence at home, in communities and at school. All too often, they see violence as normal. For instance, 80% of girls in one area in Ecuador and 77% of girls in one area in Bangladesh claimed that they “never” or “seldom” feel safe in their community.  Across the West African countries involved in this study, 30% of girls said they “never” or “seldom” feel as safe as boys on their way to school.

This sense of fear is ubiquitous. “Fear is also felt at schools, especially when any girl comes too early or goes back too late,” said one girl in Pakistan. A girl from Nicaragua reflected on the normative nature of violence in her community: “I feel safe with my family, because no one else cares for us. Rape and kidnappings are a given.”

Time and time again, girls talked about toilet facilities in their schools. Many feel that latrines are unsanitary, unsafe and crime zones. Over a third of girls claimed that adolescent girls “never” or “seldom” feel comfortable using toilet facilities at school.

Despite this situation, every day girls around the world are working to improve their lives and create a better future for themselves and their families. They are agents of change and we must ensure the right conditions are in place for them to reach their full potential.

Girls around the world know what would make their lives better and what all of us can do to support this. Communities, governments and development agencies need to listen to them. It is time to hear their voices.

Author: Nigel Chapman, Chief Executive Officer, Plan International

Image: A girl smiles as she waits for her father to take a holy bath on the bank of Bagmati River during the Janai Purnima, or Sacred Thread, Festival, near the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu August 2, 2012. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar