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Speak out with girls this International Day of the Girl

Dr Faith Mwangi Powell. Photo: Shelley Earnson

Each year, 12 million girls around the world are married before their 18th birthday. We know that in times of crisis, women and girls are disproportionately affected, as the effects of gender inequality and unequal power structures are exacerbated. Those who are most vulnerable are often those who face greater risk. COVID-19 is undermining global progress to end child marriage; UNFPA estimates on the impact of the pandemic suggest there could be an additional 13 million child marriages in the next 10 years.

I shared this urgent message in March this year – which feels like a lifetime ago now – when we were hopeful about quickly stopping the spread of COVID-19. Now, seven months into what has become our new world, our priorities to protect girls’ rights, ensure that they are heard, and end child marriage have never been more important.

Celebrating this year’s International Day of the Girl feels particularly significant for me. When I saw the theme “My Voice, Our Equal Future” I felt the need to reflect on what that means for me as the CEO of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. I thought about how I started my own journey, and how I continue to use my own voice to inspire change for all girls around the world.

I have always been proud to share brief stories about my great childhood in Kenya and how that helped shape me as the person I am today. But I didn’t always feel confident enough to use my own voice. Growing up, in a small rural village, I wore my first shoes when I was 14, and was actually afraid to wear them to school for fear of standing out. I changed my mind when one of my friends told me that if they were hers, she would wear them. She had always wanted to stand out.

That message has stayed with me throughout my career, as I have seen first-hand the importance of standing up and speaking out in a world in which so many girls can’t. Now more than ever we have to make sure that we are using our voices to end child marriage around the world. We must collaborate and speak out with a powerful collective voice. We must also support girls to assert their power and speak out for themselves as change-makers. We must all speak out!

Whether that means ensuring girls and their representatives are included in decision-making spaces, increasing our digital advocacy, encouraging and creating opportunities for more inter-generational and cross-sector conversations, girls voices must be heard and listened to. Why? Because – and this is one thing the last few months have shown me – as many people face enormous challenges, the ones bearing the brunt of them are girls. Many girls face uncertain futures and feel they have to limit or give up on their dreams.

It is our duty to listen when girls speak, and to use our own voices to support and protect them.

I applaud the many who have stepped up and I am proud of the tireless efforts I see from our Girls Not Brides member organisations, from adjusting their work in order to reach girls during the pandemic, to making sure their voices are heard and prioritised. In these past few months alone, I have heard great stories directly from our members working to ensure that girls are still accessing the resources and support they need, despite the multiple challenges.

At Girls Not Brides, our resolve is now even greater as we look into the new future. Three of our most important collective priorities as a partnership are:

  • To work and communicate with governments to ensure that girls continue to be at the centre of all COVID-19 response and recovery plans. It’s vital for us to keep leaders accountable and make space for girls’ voices to be heard and their rights protected.
  • To ensure girls return to school and access quality, inclusive learning. We must ensure that girls – particularly from households that have been marginalised – access learning.
  • To continue to push for funding for those organisations working to support girls, and to make sure there is sufficient funding to ensure no girl is neglected or married at this most difficult time.

To ending child marriage we all need to speak out and use our voices; to say “No!” to girls being denied the opportunity to be the best they can be, and to say “Yes!” to an equal future where girls can fulfil their potential alongside boys. Young women and girls are counting on our support. For their futures, and for their freedom to decide, learn and live.

If you’d like to know my vision for success, here it is: it’s when girls across the globe have the freedom to choose their equal future, a future free from harmful practices such as child marriage.

As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl, strap on your shoes without fear. Stand up and be counted as you speak out with girls around the world to secure their future in whatever way you can – as I just did.