– “Today, there are 600 million adolescent girls with specific needs, challenges and aspirations for the future,” said the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Babatunde Osotimehin, starting off a High-Level Forum on adolescent girls.
Organised by UNFPA, the meeting brought together stakeholders from civil society and the private sector to discuss the importance of investing in girls under the age of 18.
“As leaders of both today and tomorrow, they can be a force for social cohesion and progress and peace,” Osotimehin continued.
However, he noted that adolescent girls continue to face a range of challenges including violence and discrimination, which hinder access to essential services and opportunities.
President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft cited the case of Monica Singh who, at the age of 18, was attacked with acid after refusing to accept a marriage proposal.
During International Women’s Day on March 8, Singh told delegates that despite suffering from burns over 95 percent of her body, she is committed to continue fighting for gender equality.
“If a young woman is capable of overcoming such an attack on her life, her freedom and her future, just think how much more she could achieve if society was actually on her side – supporting her, empowering her,” Lykketoft remarked at the forum.
According to the Population Council, one in three women and girls experience extreme violence. The International Center for Research on Women reported that an estimated 150 million teenage girls have experienced some form of sexual violence.
In many conflict-stricken nations, sexual violence is often used as a weapon. The UN Human Rights Office recently found a “shocking” scale of sexual violence perpetrated by government forces and militia in South Sudan. In one case, a woman was tied to a tree while ten soldiers raped her 15-year-old daughter.
“This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and a weapon of war—yet it has been more or less off the radar,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra`ad Al Hussein, while releasing the investigative report.
Gender-based discrimination also continues to persist in education. In Africa and South Asia, boys are twice more likely to complete secondary education than girls. Even if girls are in school, they are often first to drop out when needed for domestic housework and are forced to leave due to child marriage or pregnancy.
However, delegates stressed the importance of education for adolescent girls.
“If adolescent girls stay in school, stay healthy, become earners and enter the labour market before they start a family, they will be more likely to support their families in overcoming generations of poverty,” Lykketoft stated.
According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), if all women had secondary education, 12 million children would be saved from stunting from malnutrition. Maternal mortality, which is the second leading cause of death among girls between the ages of 15 and 19, would also decrease significantly. Evidence also shows that every year a girl is in secondary school, wages increase by 20 percent.
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka also noted the role of education in preventing and reducing violence against women and girls by “prompting respectful relationships and gender equality amongst young boys and girls.”
However, to increase access to education and overcome gender norms, leadership and investment are needed, Lykketoft declared. “UNFPA and the UN cannot do it alone,” he said.
Both Lykketoft and Osotimehin called on the diverse group of participants to prioritize investments in adolescent girls, especially in light of the 2030 Agenda.
“The success of the 2030 agenda, which asks us to leave no one behind, will be measured in how well we are collectively able to build a world in which girls have no limits on their aspirations for the future,” Osotimehin stated.
“Let us be active in what we say, not just in the hollow chambers of the United Nations,” he continued, concluding the forum.