Friday, April 14th, 2017  |  VIEW EMAIL

Let girls be girls. Let them play, dance, explore their abilities, make mistakes, change their minds, find their passion, pursue their purpose, experience freedoms in all their choices, fall down and get back up again, discover who they really are, again and again. Let girls just be their full, actualized selves. We are still in a world where that is not what we do, it’s not who we are. We are a society that denies those born female their basic rights and protections. We are a society that does not allow girls the same opportunities as their male counterparts, we are a world that expects less from girls and treats them that way, even compensates them that way, we are a global population that mistreats girls in unimaginable ways, stripping them of their ability to pursue their fullest potential. We are a world that still says 'no' to girls, simply because, they are girls.

Though I have absorbed a lot of chilling statistics throughout my time as an advocate for women and girls, I am still stunned by how little we have accomplished in this area, how much we have left to do. PLAN’s BECAUSE I AM A GIRL initiative highlights the magnitude of the issues faced by the least empowered people on the globe: girls. It works to create space and resource for girls to have a fighting chance, to see themselves through to a better tomorrow. What I find so unique and vital about Because I Am A Girl is that it focuses on shifting power structures. Without that, how will sustainable change come to pass? Girls and women must possess the power to decide, to determine their own future. As long as girls and women have no say over what their lives look like we remain in a world where they are subject to unjust gender bias.

But I do have hope, however, for the time we are in right now, to be one where we end this disparity, where gender inequality gets put in the history books and stays there. Harry Belafonte said it and I chose to believe it is possible, “Let us use this century when we said we started the mission to end the violence and oppression of women.” Amen. Let’s continue to find our way forward, into becoming advocates, and making change for girls and women a reality. Plug in, get involved, get to know PLAN’s Because I Am A Girl; it’s going to take all hands on deck to accomplish the very challenging task, of letting girls be girls.

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Isatu strode out of her hut in the village on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone as I arrived at the Rogbum Women's Cooperative she had founded. Her dynamic leadership, uncommon for a woman in a male-dominated society where men led and women followed, had transformed the community. Because of the Cooperative, women in Isatu’s community now had plots of vegetables and fruits that improved family incomes and bolstered children's nutrition and elevated their status with the men who appreciated what they accomplished.

After we had talked, I took a picture of a beautiful little girl playing nearby. On closer inspection, though I saw she was standing on a garbage pile, barefoot, her nose running, and her hair discolored from malnutrition. I told the father I would give him a copy of the photo on my next visit.

By the time I returned, that beautiful child had died, a heart-wrenching face on the statistics of under-five child mortality. The community efforts were important but not enough to save this child and so many others like her.

I carry her face with me every day at Plan International USA as I work to promote child rights and well-being around the world. She reminds me of why we do this work, how important it is, and why outside assistance from organizations like Plan must be combined with locally-driven and led initiatives to make sure programs succeed.

Thirteen-year-old Sheshig, Lalibela, Ethiopia. Credit: Plan International/Petterik Wiggers

She reminds me too of the added and unique challenges girls face around the world. Because I am a Girl is a global movement driven by Plan to ensure girls everywhere can learn, lead, decide and thrive. It is a critical movement at a critical time, and it is very close to my heart. Girls continue to be the single most excluded group in the world. They face discrimination and abuse simply for being young and female. They are often denied their right to education, protection from gender-based violence, justice, and equal access to opportunity. They are prevented from engaging actively and equally in society and from making important decisions about their futures and bodies.

I joined Plan because it is locally-rooted in communities and helps to identify and implement appropriate solutions to complex problems. I stay with Plan because every day offers a new opportunity to support the lives of children, especially girls, and few jobs could be as rewarding as that.

Nothing will bring back that little girl in Sierra Leone. But our efforts will prevent the deaths of so many girls like her.

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Advocating for Girls’ Rights and Gender Equality in Asia

Sex workers, child brides, garbage pickers – this is the reality for hundreds and thousands of girls throughout Asia. Without the opportunity to attend school, seek support and counseling, or have a choice in the decisions that most impact their lives, many girls find themselves powerless, voiceless and trapped in poverty. “We have spent most of our lives in the shadows,” said 17-year-old Kiran from India.

While conditions are improving in many parts of the world, the reality for teenage girls and young women in many countries remains disturbing. One in five adolescent girls worldwide are out of school and 35 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual or physical violence. If the prevalence of child marriage continues at this rate, it is estimated that 140 million girls will be married by 2020.

Seventeen-year-old Kiran and her friends spent most of their lives in the shadows.

Determined to change these statistics, meet the teenage girls from around Asia and the Pacific who are challenging the norms around gender-based discrimination and human rights. They are advocating for girls’ rights and gender equality, and are committed to creating a better future for women and girls worldwide. These girls have become young female role models and activists in their own communities, using their own personal stories and struggles to set an example and demonstrate that change can happen anytime, anywhere.

Seventeen-year-old Odelia joined 250 girls and women at Timor-Leste’s first ever Girls’ Conference in June 2016.

Often neglected in favor of their brothers, they watched most girls in their small, conservative village in India get married and then be confined to their homes. A few years ago, Plan International began working in their community and developed clubs for adolescent girls. These clubs served as safe spaces for young girls to share their thoughts and experiences, to engage with their peers on issues they faced, and to receive training on how to tackle these issues. Through discussions, a pressing concern soon emerged: forced and early marriage. Kiran and her friends were determined to put an end to this issue and began advocating with their neighbors for equality and education and against gender discrimination, among other things.

India is home to one of the largest child labor populations in the world.

Through these activities, Kiran came across a 16-year-old girl who was forcibly removed from school and married against her will. Kiran and her friends approached the girl’s parents, who refused to listen and cooperate, even forbidding them from visiting their daughter. The girls approached the local government to take immediate action and stop the wedding. This situation resonated with the entire village, and culminated in a stunning achievement: an announcement made by the village elders, that no underage girl in their community would ever be forced to marry again. Through their actions, Kiran and her friends have given 957 young girls in their village and all future generations a new lease on life. “This is only the beginning,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Nurfahada recalls how a standoff in Mindanao, Southern Philippines disrupted the education of girls.

Dressed in a traditional Timorese ‘tais’, 17-year-old Odelia joined 250 girls and women at Timor-Leste’s first ever Girls’ Conference in June 2016. The conference was made up of numerous workshops, which enabled girls to develop action plans as they pertain to education, health, protection, and participation. These plans will form part of a larger girls’ declaration. Odelia went to the conference because she believes that girls should have equal rights. She believes that girls in her community are not seen as important, so she wants to make sure girls get more attention. She joined her peers to help draft the girls’ declaration.

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When given the chance, girls can change the world. We know that when a girl realizes her rights, she can be an agent of change, both for herself and for her community and country. Because I am a Girl is a movement driven by Plan International to transform power relations so girls everywhere can learn, lead, decide, and thrive. Our extensive research shows that girls continue to be the single most excluded group in the world. They face discrimination and abuse simply for being young and female. Girls are often denied their right to equal opportunity and engagement in society. Many are unable to attend school or make important decisions about their own futures and bodies, and they are far too often the victims of gender-based violence. We believe that gender equality is central to achieving long-term change. We have a vision of a world that values girls, promotes their rights, and ends injustice. When a girl realizes her rights to learn, lead, decide, and thrive, we know there is no limit to what #SheWill achieve.

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Meet Melissa

Orphaned at 15, 17-year-old Melissa lives with her uncle, aunt, and seven cousins in a remote village in Zimbabwe. Forced to drop out of school two years ago when it got too expensive, the teenager spends her time at home dreaming of a better life. “I’m envious when I see the other girls and boys passing our home as they go to school,” she said. “I wish I could still go, too.”

Melissa isn’t alone in wishing she could return to school. It is common for girls from her village to leave school because they can’t afford it, or because they get married. “I had four years of school when my mother was alive, but had no money to register for my secondary school exams, so I dropped out,” she said. At $105 a term, it’s a steep price for Melissa’s extended family, which is having trouble making ends meet. “I regret leaving and just sitting at home,” she said. “I don’t have my school uniform anymore – just the blouse.”

It’s clear that having to leave school was painful. Her stepfather used to pay for school. But, since her mother’s death, her stepfather and her brother are nowhere to be found. Now, she fills her days with household chores, but the time usually drags on. It’s the monotony that gets her down. “When I wake up, I sweep the yard and do the dishes,” she said. “Then I water the garden. I enjoy cooking sadza [thick porridge]. Then I might speak to my friends for a little while. “I liked playing netball when I was at school and I still find time to play it with some of the other girls who also no longer go to school. That’s it though. Chores and a bit of netball. There’s nothing else to do here.”

The issue of “idleness” is dominant among girls in rural parts of Zimbabwe who have left school and lack skills and opportunities to acquire work. In the new Counting the Invisible report from Plan International, girls interviewed say that they are afraid of being ‘”idle,” staying at home with no education or work opportunities to develop their skills and occupy their time in a meaningful way. Eighty-one percent of girls interviewed aged between 15-19 years old reported that they had to drop out of school either temporarily or permanently. The overwhelming majority said the reason behind this was economic, while others cited early pregnancy and early marriage as barriers to continuing their education.

Once out of school, girls said the risk of early marriage and early pregnancy increased, which they see as an inevitable consequence of having nothing else to do with their lives. Girls also reported feeling pressure from families and guardians to marry in order to relieve the financial burden of the household. “There are hundreds of girls like Melissa in Zimbabwe’s remote areas that live an unfulfilled life because they have been forced to drop out of school,” said Lennart Reinius, Country Director for Plan International Zimbabwe. “They are invisible to decision-makers because no data on their life circumstances are recorded. They are forgotten about.”

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