11/10/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 11/10/2017 03:59 SAST

Girls Should Be Empowered, Before, During And After Crises

If one girl is a revolution, what happens when the rest of Africa stands behind her?

Girls often fall through the cracks of women and youth movements.
Getty Images
Girls often fall through the cracks of women and youth movements.

International Day of the Girl Child (Day of the Girl) is celebrated annually on October 11 to highlight issues concerning the gender inequality facing young girls, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights. This year's theme is "EmPOWER Girls: Before, during and after crises".

This year marks the 6th annual International Day of the Girl (IDG). However, despite the existence of elaborate legal instruments, norms and mechanisms for the protection and promotion of the rights of girls, they still face numerous barriers to the full realisation of their rights.

Investing in adolescent girls can have a formidable ripple effect to create a better world by 2030. On this International Day of the Girl, join me as an #NDP2030 Ambassador in highlighting the potential of adolescent girls and working towards dismantling all the challenges that they are faced with.

Girls often fall through the cracks of women and youth movements as well as programmes meant to safeguard the rights of both groups. Much of the discussion on youth has been male-oriented, while that on girls' rights has focused on older women.

Specific attention should now be given to the needs, realities, rights and aspirations of girls. I believe that concrete efforts should be made to ensure that the human rights of young women and girls do not stop at norm-setting, but become an everyday reality.

A quarter of a billion girls live in poverty. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in countries like Somalia, up to 98 percent of all girls between the ages of five and 15 undergo female genital mutilation, and one in three girls in the developing world is married by the time she is 18.

Millions more live in conflict settings that increase the risk of gender-based violence. Many girls continue to be infected with HIV/AIDS, and too few girls have the education or skills they need to participate fully in the economies of their countries.

Girls in Africa can benefit from a range of skills, services, information, and support networks beyond formal education.

Today's epidemic of undereducated and impoverished girls is tomorrow's crisis of instability and conflict, health, hunger, and avoidable child deaths. My personal goal efforts are to ensure girls are educated, healthy, economically and socially empowered, and free from violence and discrimination, thereby promoting global development, security and prosperity. Seemingly small initiatives that I have participated in, like fundraising for girls' tuition fees, make a huge difference.

These practical ways of intervening do not only provide practical support in their day-to-day lives but give every girl a sense of dignity and a message of "you matter" in this world. Girls in Africa can benefit from a range of skills, services, information, and support networks beyond formal education to reach their full potential. In order to stay in school and reap the benefits of education, they must be healthy and empowered to make informed and responsible decisions about their bodies and their lives.

UNICEF reported in 2016 that girls who attend school are better equipped to improve their overall socioeconomic and emotional wellbeing. Our efforts need to aim to enhance access to quality education; to counter child, early, and forced marriage; to reduce vulnerability to gender-based violence, including harmful norms and practices such as female genital mutilation; and to provide them with the tools necessary to fully participate in their societies, claim their rights, and make informed decisions about their lives.

There can be no democratic governance and transformative development in Africa without the full and meaningful inclusion and participation of young women and girls, who constitute a large size of the women and youth population in Africa.

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The legal frameworks and norms that exist, while necessary, are insufficient to protect girls and young women's rights. They must be complemented by a change in attitude, cultural and institutional reforms, and greater political commitment towards the plight of girls and young women in our continent.

Patriarchal and ageist structures, systems and attitudes prevent young women and girls from reaching their full potential. Now is the time for concrete actions by leaders and decision-makers to systematically remove these barriers. Young women and girls should be at the centre of all initiatives to ensure ownership and meaningful participation. Space for the contribution of young women must be created at all levels.

It is time that the AU displays the leadership required to promote gender equality and protect the rights of young women.

The proposed Women Engagement Programme emerging from the AU's African Governance Architecture (AGA), presents numerous possibilities for significantly enhancing the role of young women and girls in governance and peace processes.

To avoid pitfalls this programme must consciously reach out to and involve young women and girls, rather than assuming that this constituency will be covered by the other, thereby leaving them out inadvertently. This will ensure a holistic, integrated and comprehensive approach to issues resulting in long-lasting and sustainable change.

The AU has formulated in Africa's 50-year structural transformation and development agenda, the Agenda 2063, the sixth aspiration statement as "an Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of women and youth". Even though this shows that the AU has given the matter top priority, it needs to go beyond the document. It is time that the AU displays the leadership required to promote gender equality and protect the rights of young women.

It must translate the existing normative frameworks, platforms and commitments into real tangible gains and create spaces and opportunities to enable young women to fulfil their true potential on the continent.

No society will flourish and no peace agreement will be lasting without empowering girls in peacebuilding and reconstruction. It is time to put this imperative at the heart of all of our efforts in addressing fragility, conflict and violence.

Gugu Nonjinge is an #NDP2030 Ambassador, Communications and Advocacy Officer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.