Ten years since the first International Day of the Girl, we take a moment to consider how the world has changed for girls over that decade. While the lives of girls have undoubtedly improved in many respects, they still face unprecedented challenges to their education, their physical and mental wellness, and the protections needed for a life without violence. Based on available trend data, below are 6 take-aways that demonstrate this change and call for action on the work that remains to be done.
1. More girls are completing secondary school today than a decade ago, but progress hasn’t been fast enough.
Advancing girls’ secondary education is one of the most transformative development strategies countries can invest in – for both girls and their communities. Girls who complete secondary school are less likely to be married in childhood and fall pregnant in adolescence and more likely to increase their lifetime earnings. Increasing girls’ access to education also improves maternal health and reduces the risk of child mortality. Between 2012 and 2020, the proportion of girls who completed lower secondary school rose from 69 per cent to 77 per cent while the proportion of girls who completed upper secondary school rose from 49 per cent to 59 per cent.
But this means that worldwide, nearly 1 in 5 girls are still not completing lower secondary and nearly 4 in 10 girls are not completing upper secondary school today. And in certain regions, the numbers are even more dismal. For example, in Eastern and Southern Africa, where the proportion of girls completing upper secondary school has increased only 2 percentage points in the past 10 years, only 1 in 5 girls complete upper secondary. While South Asia has experienced more progress, only half of the girls in the region complete upper secondary school today. And while data to fully assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on girls’ education are not yet available, there is a risk that the strides made to advance girls’ education over the past two decades may be rolled back.
2. Around the world, fewer adolescent girls are having children.
Pregnancy during adolescence brings a number of negative consequences for the health and well-being of girls, their newborns and communities as a whole. Globally, maternal conditions such as haemorrhage, sepsis and obstructed labour, are the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19.i And babies born to adolescent mothers are at higher risks of pre-term birth, low birth rate and severe neonatal conditions.
Worldwide, the adolescent birth rate has fallen from 51 to 42 births per 1,000 adolescent girls aged 15-19 since 2012. While progress has also been observed among least developed countries, the adolescent birth rate across these countries is more than two times the global average today, at 94 births per 1,000 girls. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest burden of adolescent childbearing worldwide – where for every 100 girls aged 15-19 years, 10 give birth – only 5 in 10 receive four or more antenatal care visits today, a small rise compared to 4 in 10 a decade ago.
3. Though girls’ access to family planning has increased, the demands of many are still unmet.
For many adolescent girls, pregnancies are neither planned nor wanted. Unintended adolescent pregnancies, especially those outside of marriage, can bring stigma and social isolation to girls and increase their risks of school drop-out and forced marriage. Yet, girls face barriers to accessing and using effective contraceptives, including cost, stigma, lack of access to accurate information, and limited decision-making autonomy.
Global progress since 2012 to satisfy adolescent girls’ demands for family planning with modern methods has been slow, increasing only five percentage points- from 55 per cent to 60 per cent. This means that 4 in 10 adolescent girls aged 15-19 who want to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern method. And in South Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 1 in 2 girls are today.
4. The proportion of new HIV infections among adolescent girls has fallen by 33 per cent over the past decade, but most new infections among adolescents still occur among girls.
The main drivers of the HIV epidemic are influenced by a wide range of gender inequalities disadvantaging girls, including early and forced marriage, gender-based violence, unequal access to services and information and a lack of negotiating power and economic autonomy.
Globally, the number of new HIV infections among adolescent girls has declined by one third since 2012, from 180,000 to 60,000 today. But adolescent girls continue to account for three in four new infections among adolescents. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest number of HIV-positive adolescents, nearly 6 times as many adolescent girls are newly infected with HIV than adolescent boys today.
5. Fewer child marriages occur today, but millions of girls remain at risk of marrying in childhood.
Child marriage robs girls of their childhood, depriving them of the agency to chart their own course in life. Over the past decade, the proportion of young women who were married as children has declined globally from 23 per cent to 19 per cent.
South Asia has experienced the most progress in this time, where a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood has dropped from 46 per cent to 28 per cent. Less progress has been observed in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 35 per cent of young women are married as children today compared to 38 per cent a decade ago. Moreover, over the next ten years, up to 10 million more girls worldwide will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.ii
6. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has declined over the past decade, but the practice continues to disrupt and damage the lives of millions of girls.
A harmful practice that violates girls’ right to health and overall well-being, FGM is a deeply entrenched social norm rooted in gender inequality. And while the proportion of adolescent girls aged 15-19 who have undergone the practice in 31 countries where it is highly concentrated has decreased from 41 per cent to 34 per cent in the past decade, progress is not nearly fast enough to meet the 2030 SDG target of eliminating FGM by 2030.
However, attitudes toward FGM are shifting, which can provide momentum to abandon the practice. In countries in sub-Saharan Africa where FGM is practiced, for example, nearly 3 in 4 adolescent girls and women aged 15-49 who have heard of the FGM think the practice should end.
Progress has been made – but accelerated action is needed
The numbers tell us that progress is possible – and that across many domains, girls today are better off than they were ten years ago. But the numbers also tell us that accelerated action is needed. Amidst the concurrent crises of climate change, armed conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic, increased resources and investments in education, healthcare, protection and more are required to enable girls to fulfil their potential. UNICEF’s new Adolescent Girls Programme Strategy articulates a plan to accelerate such programming.
These commitments must be accompanied by stronger investments in the production and analysis of high-quality gender data for children and adolescents, particularly for groups traditionally under-represented by existing gender data, including LGBTIQ+ and children aged 10-14, and in areas where data are limited – such as gender norms, mental health and adolescent empowerment. These data are critical for both driving evidence-informed policy and programme decisions for girls and furthering accountability. Girls are ready for another decade of action. We must stand for, and with, them.