On December 19 2011 the UN passed Resolution 66/170. This declared that 11 October every year to be the International Day of the Girl child. It was felt that a separate day was needed from International Women's Day to raise awareness of issues that specifically related to female children, with a different theme being chosen every year. This year it's 'Innovating for Girls' Education'. But what exactly does this mean?
Education is something that most of us in the UK take for granted. We go to nursery as toddlers, move through primary and secondary education before deciding whether college and university are for us. Most of us even grumble about it, complaining about homework, early mornings, the lack of free time. But if we didn't have this opportunity, our lives would be completely different. In 2010 the UN estimated that the global female literacy rate was 79.7% which is nearly a whole 10% lower than the male average. And that's a wide ranging statistic. If you look more closely at literacy rate by country - at least those that have statistics - only 23 out of 207 have a higher female literacy rate than male. That's quite a shocking figure especially when considered alongside the fact that only 43 countries have a literacy rate that is equal across the sexes.
Now just think about that for a second. How important is reading to you? Without being able to read you wouldn't be able to do so many everyday things that we take for granted. You wouldn't be able to read the news, a text or this even. Imagine how difficult school would have been if you hadn't been able to read - nigh on impossible. Let's take that wider. How difficult would it be to get a job in the UK without a basic level of literacy? If girls grow up unable to read, they are automatically barred from so many professions in their future. They are forced to work in jobs that require little formal education that tend to be low-wage professions. A lack of education becomes a barrier of poverty, meaning most women are stuck in a cycle of having no education and being unable to provide it for their own children.
Why are girls being prevented from reaching their full potential? Obviously there are social and political issues surrounding female access to education, most notably highlighted in recent years by Malala Yousafzai, but there are other issues too. Girls are often required to stay at home in order to help care for younger siblings and help with household chores meaning that they miss days at school. Child marriage is also a major issue when it comes to female education - if a girl is married at a young age she's not simply expected to help at home but to run her own household. There is also a problem with low aspirations: if a girl knows that as a woman she'll never be able to reach beyond a certain point in the world of work, what motivation does she have to work hard at school? Why expend effort in gaining an education that you will be prevented from using merely due to your gender?
This year the UN have laid out some aims that they will be pushing for in terms of female education. These include things which are as simple as improving public and private methods of transport so that girls can actually get to school and working with banks to ensure that female teachers receive their salaries. They are also advocating revised curriculums that raise awareness of domestic violence and child marriages as well as helping girls understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health.
But all of these seem to be quite far away from us in the UK. So what is it that we should be thinking about this Friday? What issues are young girls facing in the UK? I feel that it's easy to talk about the over sexualisation of children and how they are being bombarded with sexual imagery through an increasingly cruder media. But what can we actually do about this? The answer, oddly enough, lies in education. The only way we can teach girls that the image they are shown through music videos, songs and magazines is not how they have to be is to tell them so. It's no good attempting to ban certain songs, censor certain pictures or even condemning particular stars publically. All that is going to do is increase their allure. They'll become idolised due to their subversive quality and is this really the message we want to get across?
So, instead of focusing on attacking those who are perpetuating this almost unattainable image, why not start by teaching girls that they have other choices? Let's take a positive approach and teach girls that they are free to grow up however they want to be. If a girl decides she wants to dress entirely in boys clothes and become a mechanic, encourage her. If she decides she wants to wear dresses and become a pop star, encourage her too! Girlhood is about having the freedom to explore your potential, the chance to make mistakes and learn from them. So that is what I feel this year's International Day of the Girl should be about: giving girls in the UK the space to grow into their own futures.