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Rural adolescent girls call for their voices to be heard at side event of the Commission on the Status of Women

By Desmond Doogan

NEW YORK, USA, 1 March 2012 – The 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women takes place in New York this week. To mark the event, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), in partnership with UN Women, UNICEF and Plan International, hosted a side event today, bringing together adolescent girl delegates and key UN representatives to discuss the complex realities and challenges facing rural girls.

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The event, ‘Empowering Rural Girls: From Invisibility to Agency’, moderated by Daniel Seymour, featured panelists Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women; Marta Santos Pais, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children; and delegates Elizabeth, Teresa, and Maryam from rural areas in Malawi, Sierra Leone and Pakistan. The girls are part of a program run by Plan International, which is funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), a key member of UNGEI’s Global Advisory Committee.

The United Kingdom Minister for Equality, Lynne Featherstone, opened the event, emphasizing that “educating girls is one of the best ways to reduce poverty,” and calling on the audience to each do their part to support investment in young women.

Challenges and opportunities

Maryam, 15, knows first-hand the challenges young girls face accessing school in rural Pakistan.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0125/Susan Markisz
Michelle Bachelet speaks at ‘Empowering Rural Girls: From Invisibility to Agency’. Beside her are Teresa, 17; Maryam, 15; Elizabeth, 17; and Marta Santos Pais, SRSG on Violence Against Children

Many girls’ parents are conservatives, and they don’t like that their girls go to school. Girls have no confidence. Many parents in my village are unaware, uneducated, with a conservative mind. That’s why girls in my village suffer different problems and issues,” Maryam said.

Ms. Bachelet said that it will take a long time to see change in rural areas. “The first and most important factor is the education of the mother. So if we are failing on a central issue, it has to be the central function of a state or a government to ensure free education for all,” Ms. Bachelet said.

The way forward

All panelists stressed the importance of including girls and children in discussions and decisions about their future, and acknowledged that much remains to be done to strengthen women’s economic, social and cultural empowerment and capacity.

©UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0125/Susan Markisz
Elizabeth, 17, speaks at ‘Empowering Rural Girls: From Invisibility to Agency’. She is from Malawi and is a representative of the Kasungu North Youth Network.

Elizabeth, 17, who comes from the tobacco growing district of Kasungu in central Malawi, said, “Nothing can be done for girls if girls are not involved.”

“The support needs to start in the family,” she added. “I am very lucky. My dad is educated and he knows the rights of the girl child, and he respects me and my rights.”

Ms. Santos Pais said, “Men and boys are critical as partners… otherwise we will find solutions for half of the population, but the other half [will not be] willing to listen.”

Teresa, 17, said she came to the event to “speak for the voices of the voiceless in Sierra Leone.” She later appealed to the audience to “give us the chance, so that we can become leaders in development.

“The future of young girls and women lie in your tender hands,” she said.


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