By Kelly Litt, Dominican Volunteer
As a member of the Working Group on Girls (WGG), a coalition of over 80 national and international NGOs at the United Nations, I aim to work with and for girls to ensure their rights and voices are included at the United Nations and in international agreements. Within the WGG, I sit on the Advocacy Task Force that works to set up meetings with Missions at the UN. In recent months, I have met with representatives from Cuba, Pakistan, Guatemala, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. These meetings aim to explain to the representative the work WGG does while also discussing key issues pertaining to girls in their specific country or region.
Some meetings go smoothly and function more as an introduction of WGG and as a way to offer praise and thanks to countries who are leading the way in the area of girls’ rights. The Netherlands, for example, has more women than men in higher education and is encouraging women to enter leadership positions through their FLOW (Fundraising Leadership Opportunities for Women) Program which they sponsor in over 100 countries worldwide. The Netherlands also has a new and large focus on youth; however, during this meeting we discussed the importance of differentiating between women and girls and boys and girls. While girls have similar issues and could easily be grouped with women or with children, the truth is girls face unique challenges of their own.
Across the board, many countries fail to differentiate girls from boys. Grouping both in the category of “children” prevents gender specific issues from being recognized. Girls’ rights, such as having separate sanitary facilities at schools, honor killings, or early, forced, and child marriage, are often overlooked when they are grouped into the “children” category.
Girls specifically are still far too often forced to deal with early, forced, and child marriage in many areas of the world. During my mission visit with Guatemala, the representative explained that there are high numbers of girls who are forced to marry early and then have children at an extremely young age which prevents them from staying in school.
During a meeting with a representative from Pakistan, it was again apparent that the importance of differentiating between boys and girls is not widely understood. The representative from Pakistan questioned how girls’ rights were different than women’s rights or children’s rights. However, he explained that Pakistan does support gender equality and gender empowerment. He acknowledged that one of the largest issues in Pakistan currently is providing equal access to education for girls.
It was somewhat surprising to learn through my Cuban mission visit that Cuba has an impressive record of gender equality. About 45 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women, and there is a strong, long-term social policy on gender which leads to gender equality in schools and equal opportunities for girls.
New Zealand similarly has a large number of women in political positions as well as a strong educational system for girls where they are treated quite equally to boys. However, they struggle with violence against women. This is especially an issue in some communities of New Zealand such as the Pacific Island and Maori; these communities which tend to be lower on the economic ladder struggle with gender equality.
Similar to lobbying and advocating on Capitol Hill with congressmen and women, many NGOs work to advocate on behalf of the voiceless around the world. Through these mission visits, I have learned just how valuable sharing conversations and perspectives are to implementing change. It is through these meetings that we build relationships, and it is through these relationships that we are able to incorporate the voice of girls into the global agenda. I encourage you to continue working toward change in your community and begin the conversation.