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United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Backgrounder

Press Release 07-011-E 2007.03.08

ENDING DISCRIMINATION AND VIOLENCE AGAINST THE GIRL CHILD

Discrimination and violence against the girl child persist around the world despite progress in raising awareness that girls have rights, and that violations of these rights are unacceptable and have a detrimental impact on society as a whole.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women will consider “the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child” as the priority theme for its 51st session (26 February – 9 March 2007).

Background

Discrimination against girls results in inequality in access to and quality of health care and education, and in economic opportunities. It can be manifested in violence against girls, such as sexual violence and harmful traditional practices detrimental to their health and well-being. Because of stereotypical attitudes, girls may be denied the opportunities available to boys to learn about how society functions, to take part in decision-making processes, and thus, to fully exercise their rights. 

Deep concerns about the obstacles girls face to the full enjoyment of their rights have been voiced by the United Nations General Assembly, human rights treaty bodies, and international conferences—among them, that girls are among the most adversely affected by poverty and armed conflicts, and that girls are often subjected to various forms of sexual and economic exploitation.

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action – the global policy framework for gender equality and empowerment of women – noted that discrimination and violence against girls begin at the earliest stages of life and continue throughout the life cycle.  At the ten-year review of the Platform for Action, Member States highlighted the risks girls continue to face, such as sexual abuse, harmful traditional practices, child labour and lack of access to education, and identified growing, emerging risks such as HIV/AIDS and commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, including in conflict and post-conflict situations.

At its 42nd session, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) adopted agreed conclusions that proposed actions to provide girls with education and empowerment, improve girls’ health, protect girls in armed conflict, and prevent trafficking and exploitative labour conditions.

Legal framework

Two United Nations Conventions—on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—prescribe a comprehensive set of measures to ensure the elimination of discrimination and violence against the girl child. Taken together with their Optional Protocols, they provide the basis for the legal and policy framework for the protection and promotion of the rights of the girl child.  International Labour Organization Conventions Nos. 182 and 183 on child labour provide additional legal tools.

Progress has been made, more to be done

Significant progress has been made.  There is growing awareness that girls have rights and that violations of these rights are unacceptable and have a detrimental impact on society as a whole. Issues of concern to the girl child have been identified in all sectors, and steps are being taken to incorporate attention to girls in existing legislation, policies, strategies and action plans on gender equality or on children.

In efforts to implement global policy recommendations to protect girls’ human rights, many Member States have passed or strengthened national laws to protect girls, including to ban sex-selective abortions, combat child labour, increase the minimum age of marriage and address violence against girls, including commercial sexual exploitation, pornography, trafficking and sexual abuse.

Despite such measures, many gaps in implementation remain. Critical stakeholders, including policy makers, service providers, communities and families—even girls themselves—are not always fully aware of girls’ rights. Girls remain invisible in many national policies and programmes, and critical issues such as child domestic work, early and forced marriage, decent work, civil registration, HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse and trafficking remain unaddressed.

Stereotypical attitudes and behaviours impede the full implementation of legislative and policy frameworks to guarantee gender equality and have direct negative implications for the status and treatment of girls.

Girls at risk:  Discrimination and violence against the girl child

Two landmark studies—the Secretary-General’s in-depth study on violence against women and the report of the independent expert for the United Nations on violence against children — along with reports by the United Nations Secretary-General on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child prepared for consideration by the Commission, contain compelling evidence and make a rigorous call to end discrimination and violence against girls.  Among their findings:

  • Some groups of girls are particularly at risk: adolescents, migrants and orphans; girls with disabilities; and girls living in detention or in rural areas.
  • Girls are often most at risk in the very spaces where they should be safest — at the hands of those individuals and institutions charged with their protection, in the family, community and  educational institutions.
  • Girls and women experience various forms of violence throughout their lifecycle, beginning before birth and extending to old age.
  • Girls and young women today experience new and emerging forms of violence, such as date rape.
  • Girls are more likely than boys to face many types of discrimination and violence both at home and in the community, including sexual abuse, early marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, forced sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual violence, and forced prostitution.
  • Factors such as poverty, HIV/AIDS and conflict and its aftermath significantly increase the risk of exposure of girls to discrimination and violence.
  • Girls are also more likely than boys to be victims of trafficking, both internally and internationally, for reasons of economic and sexual exploitation.

Domestic labour

Girls’ domestic labour, which is unregulated and largely invisible in national statistics, often prevents them from getting an education.  Girls may be forced to withdraw from school in order to take on a large share of domestic and child-rearing duties.  Millions of school-age girls around the world, some as young as 5 years old, work in domestic service outside of the home. Isolated in homes with little or no social support or protection, they are exposed to discrimination, violence and abuse. Lack of interaction with peers can negatively impact girls’ self-esteem and confidence. Less participation in school and lower academic achievement in turn increase the likelihood that girls will one day live in poverty.

Adolescent girls and harmful traditional practices

Girls aged 10 to 14—among the most under-served groups—are at particularly high risk of discrimination and violence, and efforts to empower them are critical,  especially girls living outside the protective structures of family and schools, heading households, at risk of early marriage, or already married.

In some societies, adolescent girls are subjected to harmful traditional practices that result from discrimination and which violate their rights, such as female genital mutilation/cutting, early marriage and son preference.

Female genital mutilation/cutting:  Up to 140 million women and girls alive today have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting, and a further 2 million girls are estimated to be at risk of undergoing the procedure each year.

Early or child marriageGlobally, 36 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 years were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age. Such early or childhood marriages can have extremely negative consequences for young girls, by interfering with their education, and by putting girls at a disadvantage in terms of negotiating power with significantly older spouses.  Girls are also prevented from interacting with peers or participating in community activities.

Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women in their twenties.  The risk is five-fold for girls under 15. Many more girls will suffer injuries and infections with lingering disabilities, such as obstetric fistula.

Son preference:  Son preference persists in many societies, leading to sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and distorted sex-ratios.

HIV/AIDS

A number of factors place girls at increased risk of HIV/AIDS.  Poverty and systemic gender-based discrimination, including lack of education and economic independence, harmful traditional practices, limited negotiating power and sexual exploitation, such as trafficking and rape, inhibit girls’ ability to protect themselves from or to respond fully to the consequences of infection.  Yet education and knowledge about sexual health are often discouraged, and girls infected or affected by HIV/AIDS are less likely to have access to health services.

Worldwide, 17.3 million women and girls aged 15 years and older, or 48 per cent of the global total, are living with HIV. Of young people aged 15 to 25 living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, more than 60 per cent are female. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly three out of four (74 per cent) of young people aged 15 to 24 living with HIV are female.

Conflict and post-conflict situations

The risk that girls will encounter discrimination and violence intensifies in conflict and post-conflict situations. Girls, who constitute 40 per cent of child soldiers, are often forcibly or coercively recruited and exposed to abuse, exploitation and sexual violence. Rape, including of very young girls, has been used widely as a weapon of war in recent conflicts.

Most disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes overwhelmingly focus on young men and boys. The deep-rooted stigma girl child soldiers face when they return to their families and communities, combined with the trauma they have suffered, make the formulation and delivery of successful reintegration programmes for girls even more difficult.

The numbers of girl-headed households increase in conflict and post-conflict situations. In their efforts to provide for their siblings, girls face higher risks of sexual abuse, exploitation and exposure to HIV.

Education

Despite sustained efforts to meet international targets for the elimination of gender disparities in schools and increase girls’ levels of achievement—by increasing girls’ access to education and keeping them in school longer—as many as 55 million girls continue to be left out of formal schooling. Obstacles to girls’ regular attendance can include fear of violence at or on their way to and from school, sometimes exacerbated by a lack of separate, safe sanitary facilities. Even where increased enrolment of girls has been achieved, positive outcomes are not guaranteed, as girls are more likely than boys to repeat classes or to drop out of school.

Empowerment:

The key to ending discrimination and violence against the girl child

To break the cycle of discrimination and violence, girls need to be empowered.  Girls that are empowered have more control over their lives, become active members of their communities, and are better able to make informed choices about issues that affect them directly.

To empower girls, all barriers that prevent them from developing their full potential should be eliminated.  Important steps include giving them equal access to education, training, health services, community activities, and girl-friendly, safe spaces for peer interaction.

For girls in high-risk situations, social and psychological support services are essential.  These can take the form of girl-targeted programmes that encompass age-appropriate, integrated and comprehensive information and services, such as education on girls’ rights and reproductive health; vocational training; and tools and activities that build self-awareness and self-esteem. Special attention is necessary to focus on the prevention of early and repeat pregnancies and the control of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Assisting girls to secure economic independence is also critical for girls’ protection and empowerment, and can be particularly helpful for girls in high-risk situations, such as girls heading households and girls affected by HIV/AIDS, conflict or trafficking.

Increasing access to education

To empower girls, increasing their access to education is also critical. Effective strategies for increasing girls’ enrolment in schools, and keeping them there, include initiatives to alleviate the cost burden of sending girls to school by providing scholarships, uniforms, books, free transportation and meals. Infrastructure investments, including providing separate sanitary facilities and dormitories for girls, school electrification and road-building, can help girls in rural areas enjoy increased access to education. Policies to ensure that pregnant girls and young mothers are able to continue school are an important step to ensuring girls’ equal access to education.

The appropriateness and gender-sensitivity of educational settings, methods, content and materials are also important, as is the gender-sensitivity of teachers and fellow students.

Encouraging girls to pursue disciplines traditionally dominated by men, such as science, engineering and technology, is another important step in girls’ empowerment.  Fewer girls than boys access and use information and communication technologies (ICTs), and ensuring their access to ICTs can open doors for girls by improving their access to information and other human development opportunities and creating new opportunities for social interaction, including peer and bottom-up communication.

Creating “safe spaces” for girls

Ensuring personal safety and security is essential for the empowerment of girls. Experience shows that “safe spaces” provide opportunities for girls to: develop important life skills, including leadership capacities; build protective friendship networks; learn about and defend their rights; develop a positive self-image; and make responsible and informed decisions on matters affecting their lives. Girls’ involvement in youth clubs and integrated girl-friendly centres has been proven to have a positive impact on their welfare in the long term, and holds promise in empowering girls to actively participate in society and counteracting societal pressures that undermine their self-esteem.

Sport, when undertaken in a safe and girl-friendly environment, can also be a powerful tool for girls’ empowerment, leading to the development of critical values and skills like teamwork, communication and respect for others.

The social capital of girls, in the form of supportive family, friends and communities, needs to be actively nurtured.  Boys should be sensitized at an early stage to develop respect for the rights of women and girls to equal treatment and opportunities.

Moving forward

Increased explicit attention must be given to the girl child within broader policies, strategies and action plans focused on women or children at all levels.

States need to develop or strengthen policies and programmes that explicitly focus on the girl child. They should also increase efforts to mainstream the girl child perspective in broader policies and programmes, including by ensuring that girls are given specific attention in child- and gender-sensitive budgeting processes across all sectors. Innovative, targeted programmes that address their needs and priorities, especially in high-risk situations, should be actively supported and adequately financed.

Girls need greater awareness of reproductive health issues, including how to prevent early pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS.  They also need better access to information and services, including age-appropriate sexual health education.

Raising the visibility and awareness of the girl child’s rights, and actively engaging men and boys, are important strategies for eliminating discrimination and violence and empowering girls. Adolescent boys should be provided with opportunities to engage in constructive dialogue on gender identities and roles, and to have positive interactions with girls, particularly in relation to sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS.

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Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
– DPI/2450 B — February 2007