Every year, the United Nations Population Fund issues its flagship report, State of World Population (SWOP), highlighting a key theme related to our vision of a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.
This year’s SWOP, titled 10: How our future depends on a girl at this decisive age, is our first in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on a constituency at the very core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that the goals seek to fulfil, with their central pledge of leaving no one behind.
It also comes on the heels of the International Day of the Girl Child, marked on 11 October, when it was gratifying to see so many people and institutions all over the world and from very diverse spheres of life call for making life better, safer and freer for girls.
It was encouraging to see messages all over social media recognizing the unacceptable conditions under which tens of millions of girls still live, and demanding change – universalizing access to basic health and education, eliminating child marriage and violence against girls at the hands of parents or husbands, and the violence of armed conflict.
Yet at the same time, there was a recurring theme in many of these messages that I found jarring: the idea that we must “invest” in girls for a better future for countries. Not because it’s not true that guaranteeing good health and education and empowerment of girls is crucial for sustainable and equitable economic and social development – there is a voluminous amount of data that demonstrates that this is the case. My objection is to the idea of having to justify making life better for girls as a step leading to something else that is more important, whether it be economic growth, political stability or even more equal societies – in the future.
Not as worthy as a boy
I have led an enormously privileged life, with access to the best healthcare, education and professional opportunities anyone – male of female – could wish for. Yet this discourse of investment brought back a memory from over 40 years ago when I was reminded as a girl that I was not quite as worthy of all this as the boys.
I must have been 14 or 15, sitting in algebra class in a private girls’ school I attended in Tokyo. My teacher, a woman, was exceptional. I was not good at maths and had always felt a resistance to the subject, but this lively, brilliant woman had made me understand algebra and enjoy it. It must have been the last day of school because the teacher was looking back at the year and telling all of us how well we’d done and how happy this had made her. I have a memory of all of us collectively basking in a glow of satisfaction. But then she said: “Ah well, but it doesn’t really matter because all of you will be getting married anyway."
These words were shocking not only in their assumption that marrying and becoming housewives (who would have no use for algebra) was the only conceivable future for us, but also because of the implication that the process of girls learning and being excited about learning was not of value in itself; that it was only of value if it had practical utility – perhaps not so much for the girls themselves but for society – once they were grown.
Yet today, when we justify investing in girls in terms of what that will produce for the rest of society in the future, are we not propagating the same sad prejudice my algebra teacher did more than 40 years ago?
This map shows where most of the world's 10-year-old girls are. The countries in darkest blue have the highest number.
All of us who have children, and those who may not be parents but have children in their lives whom they love – regardless of whether they are girls or boys – of course think about their futures. We want them to become happy, independent, productive and caring adults and citizens. But at the same time, we want them to be happy as they are, in this moment.
When we speak of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its purpose of achieving a life of dignity for all, part of that endeavor has to be ensuring a safe and free and happy life for all girls now, while they are still girls. That is why we need to direct as many resources as possible, as quickly as possible, to ensure the conditions for a good life for all girls.
The Asia-Pacific region alone is home to more than half of the world’s 10-year-olds. We need to seek out those who suffer the greatest deprivations and the greatest violence and pain, and enjoy the least freedom and opportunities. Those like the girl in Bangladesh who was married off at 12 and soon thereafter became pregnant and endured a stillbirth that left her with obstetric fistula, and abandoned by her husband.
I met this girl 26 years later in the fistula clinic in Dhaka where, as an adult of almost 40, she was finally treated for this terrible affliction. She could not stop thanking those around her, including myself. She will not recover her right to a free and joyous girlhood – but if we try harder, more girls who face the prospect of forced marriage today can be protected from that fate.
Currently, most 10-year-olds, whether girls or boys, live in countries with high levels of gender inequality.
The 2030 Agenda envisions an integrated and holistic development process that eradicates poverty once and for all and brings together the economic, social and environmental spheres of life to build “peaceful and inclusive societies”.
At heart, it is about building a different vision of what constitutes a good life, as one not merely of material well-being but of caring – nations and societies that care for all people, not just the privileged few, people caring for one another and for the community as a whole, and human beings caring for other forms of life with whom we share the planet.
If that is the case, we cannot realize that vision without doing everything we possibly can now to make sure that all girls everywhere can enjoy their girlhoods, secure in the love of their families, protected from ill health and violence, free to learn and explore the world as they choose. So let us take on that challenge today.