11 October marks the annual International Day of the Girl Child as declared by the United Nations in 2011. It is a day when various events are held to raise awareness around the importance of girls’ rights in the hopes of gaining active support for the cause, with each year carries a different theme. The sixth annual celebration’s theme is “The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030”, and it emphasises the importance of gender equality and the general goal of empowering all women by 2030.
A substantial number of young girls in the world face various challenges that are often overlooked. One of the major obstacles preventing the empowerment of girls is child marriage. New research on this topic has been released by UNICEF which says, “Globally, one in seven adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 are currently married or in union” and whether or not the girl is physically and mentally ready, or willing, the marriage often leads to pregnancy soon after. This has resulted in over 20 000 girls, under the age of 18, giving birth every day in developing countries, exceeding 7 million births. Due to these limitations, only 34% of girls complete their tertiary education, according to government statistics.
There has been an emergence of many campaigns both nationally and internationally in the hopes of preventing this kind of child and gender misconduct. Pledge a Pad is an on-campus initiative which was founded by Aileen Hlongoane in 2010 with the aim to dispel any myths and misconceptions regarding the menstrual cycle while building confidence and empowering the young ladies they assist. Thulani Velebayi, from Sonke Gender Justice, says, “When having to make the choice between buying food or sanitary pads, girls will frequently choose food”. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), up to 3.7 million girls country wide are affected by this dilemma, which leads to them missing an average of four days of school per month. Due to the aforementioned effects, Pledge a Pad set out to distribute sanitary towels to disadvantaged girls and educate them about the menstrual cycle.
Students at UP also played a part in another successful campaign, Take a Girl Child to Varsity. The Founder and Chairperson, Onalenna Valerian Diphoko, says their aims are to “[support] girls [in] furthering their studies and following their dreams, and [to focus] not only on the best achievers of the school, but mostly those who are supposedly struggling so that they can ‘up’ their marks.” Diphoko says an initiative like this is necessary, because it is a source of information about universities for those who were not able to gain this information in the past and it also plays a part in helping girls achieve university entrance. Take a Girl Child to Varsity does this through mentoring young girls’ decisions from subject to career choice. Their work includes tutoring girls for the purpose of matric rewrites and organised visits to universities in the hope of decreasing dropout rates.
These initiatives all play a major role in bettering serious gender obstacles both close to home and abroad. It is the mass participation in these campaigns that is seen as investments, not only for the future of a young girl, but for global progress as well. Jenni Lee, Senior Editor and Executive Speechwriter at the United Nations Foundation says, “Investing in girls is one of the smartest things we can do to promote a healthier, more prosperous world. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”
Illustration: Sally Hartzenberg