THE BLOG

It's Time to 'Walk the Walk' for Girls' Rights

15/10/2014 17:29 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT

From Malala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize to Emma Watson's magnificent recent speech at the United Nations, the plight of girls and women around the world continues to make headlines more frequently than ever before.

Growing numbers of people are becoming aware - and becoming angry - of injustices that are based simply on sex, both in the UK and worldwide. Along with high profile celebrity interventions, social media campaigns driven by young people are bringing these issues to the fore, while on issues such as Female Genital Mutilation, taboos that have long remained intact are being broken.

Girls' and women's rights are on the radar of politicians, too. At the recent UN General Assembly session in New York, gender equality seemed higher up the agenda than ever before - countless fringe meetings on the issue were held between charities and governments from around the world. At the UK political party conferences, too, discussions about gender - both at home and abroad - seemed to be a bigger fixture than previous years.

In the charity sector, there has developed a strong agreement that globally, equality between boys and girls, men and women is something we must absolutely get right in the set of targets that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) next year.

The MDG targets have brought huge progress for the world's poorest people. But they are not without their weaknesses, and evidence shows that girls and women have continued to be left behind. There's now great clamour for a specific goal on gender to try and redress this.

This level of international attention and scrutiny is welcome and I for one intend to carry on playing my part in keeping girls' rights at the top of the global agenda. But let's not forget that if you talk to a girl affected by FGM, or who was married off at 12 and pregnant at 13, it's not the 'global agenda' that matters.

What matters to her is whether her daughters, and her daughters' daughters, continue to be affected by these practices. And so discussion amongst politicians, charities and UN ambassadors has to be backed up with meaningful support for grassroots movements which bring about real change in girls' and women's lives.

But sadly, Plan UK's Pathways to Power report - which we launched in London this week - comprehensively reveals that it's at this level that change remains painstakingly slow. What is said and done on the international stage is important, but too often it's not matched by real improvements in the lives of real girls.

It can in many respects be considered a great mark of progress that a guarantee of gender equality is now included in the constitutions of 139 countries worldwide. Countless laws have been passed worldwide to protect girls and women, too. But what we find is that the people charged with implementing these laws are all too often steeped in the mindsets that make abuse acceptable in the first place.

For example, a survey in India found that 50% of magistrates who were being trained on the Domestic Violence Act believed that "for a successful marriage, sometimes a man needs to discipline his wife." In Sierra Leone, just six per cent of report cases of gender-based violence resulted in a conviction last year.

In the research conducted for our report, girls and women consistently explained that their experience lags behind the legislation. For them, grand speeches are distant; it takes time - sometimes many years - for the impact to filter down.

This momentum in the charity and political sphere is crucial, and I support calls for the right targets to be in place to harness this. Indeed in our report we are backing the call for those targets, as well as a new UN Commission to track progress on gender equality more closely.

But let's not be guilty of 'talking the talk' without 'walking the walk.' Girls' and women's rights may now be high up the agenda, but we mustn't let this lead us to believe that we are on an irreversible path to equality when, in millions of families, communities and countries across the world, the fight must continue.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Labour's Seema Malhotra MP was ready for the fight - but also recognised that it's not one for politicians to lead alone. "By empowering girls, we can inspire the next generation of young women and help break cycles of violence forever," she said. "Do we want to see girls come forward as decision makers?" To which, we can all agree, the answer is yes.

Join Plan UK's campaign to Face Up to violence against girls at plan-uk.org/faceup