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What Do We Need to Do to Give Girls a Happy Future?

Today bright young girls are still fighting for basic rights, for education in the case of Malala. Words cannot begin to express her bravery in the face of inequality. But tragically even for those educated in the West there is still suffering and unhappiness.
Robert Daly via Getty Images

It is International Day of the Girl Child today and worth reflecting on why we still need a specific day to celebrate girls.

One hundred years ago, young girls had little expectation of a full and fulfilling adult life. For many, the future was one of service and duty. The expectation of motherhood was one of the few joys available. Fifty years ago, women had secured the vote and greater access to the world of work but the opportunities were still fairly limited -- nurse, teacher, secretary. Women were still struggling to break into non-caring professions. Mad Men is testament to that. Twenty-five years ago, when I was growing up, so much more was possible and no profession was 'off-limits' but it was and still is a struggle to equal men's share of senior roles and power in the boardroom.

Today bright young girls are still fighting for basic rights, for education in the case of Malala. Words cannot begin to express her bravery in the face of inequality. But tragically even for those educated in the West there is still suffering and unhappiness. A third of young girls don't feel "good enough" and six out of 10 drop out of sport and other activities due to insecurities. It is so bad that the government has invested in a body confidence campaign starting on Monday. This might be considered a first-world problem but the side effects of low self-esteem are crushing and can lead to serious problems such as eating disorders, self-harming and bullying.

My own experience demonstrates how a lack of confidence can be a real inhibitor to a fulfilling life. I suffered from bullying at school which crushed my confidence. I was called all manner of names and even though I scored top marks throughout school, I didn't believe I was good enough. When I graduated from Oxford University, my insecurities meant I shied away from the traditional "big jobs" like banking and law. I tried a work placement on the trading floor of a bank but found myself harassed by my male counterparts and there were not enough young women there with whom to seek solidarity.

I "fell" into advertising as my then boyfriend had a career in it and it felt "safe." I worked my way up but although I worked relentlessly, I never quite made it big -- the guys got the partnerships and the big breaks. I even had to sit through management meetings where my MD would critique the boobs of my team. Had I been emotionally strong enough, I would have blown the whistle on them, but I was afraid I'd be fired. Ironically, later on I was booted out of a job and I divorced my husband which left me in a freefall. It enabled me to do a lot of soul-searching and I decided to do what I needed to make a difference. I began to write - a blog at first, and then a trilogy of novels about a night school for self-esteem called The Ugly Little Girl.

I want young girls to have more chances than I did, to believe that anything is possible. But unpicking low self-esteem is not an easy feat when our society still judges women more by their looks than their actions. Feeling good about yourself is often feeling pretty, sexy or slim. This has been ingrained in children from an early age. People coo over a baby girl using words such as 'cute' 'gorgeous' but for boys it is "funny," "strapping" or "smart." Research shows women spend at least an hour of their day on their appearance and a large chunk of time is spent 'fat-talking' - which celebs are skinny or not, which friends have gained or lost weight. In today's world self-esteem seems to be skin deep - it doesn't seem to come from great achievements or ones true passions anymore. Rebecca Adlington is a case in point - she is a world-beating, Olympic medal-winning swimmer but because others critiqued her looks and body, she lacked confidence. Instead of her immense talent being celebrated, she was mocked for her appearance. That is not a healthy situation for Rebecca Adlington, or any young girl who sees how she is treated in the public eye.

In order for the next generation of girls to feel able to abandon beauty driven principles, brands and media need to change the conversation. Skin whiteners, anti ageing creams, slimming underwear fill women's universe, not to mention apps for airbrushing selfies. A few products have woken up to the dire reality of the situation and challenged the norm. The Dove self-esteem project tells us that we are more beautiful than we think we are. Always shows how being 'like a girl' has come to mean weakness or 'less than'. The Girl Guides have also created a self-esteem badge that bans 'body talk' and gets girls to redefine beauty as being on the inside. But they are lone voices. Glossy magazines dare not ban airbrushing for fear of upsetting celebs and harming advertising revenues. The female archetype is also still depicted as a perfectly beautiful Barbie doll, girls toys are pink and sugar and spice. Boys on the other hand are superheroes that can conquer the world.

The change that is needed ultimately lies with the two major forces in a young girl's life - her Mum and her schooling. Research shows that mothers that lack confidence hand down insecure behaviours to their daughters. They complain about their looks in front of their daughters, belittle their own abilities and worse still discourage them from doing what they really desire. In short, one of the greatest gifts a mother can give her daughter is her own self-care.

But it is schools are where impressionable teen girl spend most of their time. The origin of the word is the ancient Greek word 'Skhole', which means leisure. Schooling these days is very focused on testing, results and achievement, rather than on leisure, values and behaviour. I am a perfect example of someone who excelled academically but who was often too shy or afraid to take advantage of it all. In other countries such as Denmark kids don't begin school till 6 or 7 when they are robust enough to cope with long days, noisy playgrounds and the inevitable friendship ups and downs. They also have a much broader curriculum split into humanities, creative/arts and science with obligatory classes about family and relationships. In the UK the long days are filled with traditional fact-based subjects that haven't changed since Victorian times when boys went off to be doctors and girls became a teacher or went into service if they were lucky. Classes today have been upgraded with technological innovation, but we have not innovated to teach children about what matters in the real world. There have been attempts to introduce other methods but none have been properly endorsed by the government and are perceived still as being a bit 'hippy'. One such course about confidence, devised by Kings College, delved into media representation of women, fat talking and techniques to identify one's true vocation, to get happy. But it fell flat as there was no commitment to funding. Let's hope the new all parliamentary party group (APPG) can get self-esteem into PGCE lessons as standard for girls and for boys. For behaviours and perceptions have to change amongst both sexes if girls are to be seen as individuals and not objects.

For if women felt resilient enough at a very deep level they could move mountains. I know that I suffered a lot because I allowed bad things to happen me. I didn't have the courage to say no. I was afraid to leave my husband, my job, negative friendships.

We all need to do what we can to strengthen our daughters, nieces, godchildren. We shouldn't need an independent day for the girl or one for women. The fact that one exists just underlines the continued underlying inequality. But for now we need to use this day to galavanise education, media and brands, to call a moratorium on false and bad role models and to actively campaign for a rich and bright future for women. The government recently declared low self-esteem as one of the biggest threats to a women's well being. Many adult women have had to endure hardship, injustice, physical abuse and they need guidance and support. For many it is too late to make them feel truly happy in themselves. But our young girls of 11 to 14, at that critical age of development, have their lives ahead of them. Generation Self-Esteem is the next phase of female emancipation. It is not about rights, it is about feelings, an innate sense that being yourself is more than enough.

My pledge to the generation self-esteem, our young girls today, would be the following:

-They will run businesses, be scientists, build houses.

-They won't get laughed at for their imperfections

-They won't have to spend hours primping, waxing, manicuring to look good (if they don't want to)

-They won't get critiqued for being too fat, too old, too grey, too short.

-They can have kids and work, or stay at home or ask their husband to be a primary carer or none of the above - as long as its an active choice

-Women's media will be more than beauty, it will cover other interests and uses role models that aren't just famous for being beautiful.

-That they will be able to say no to arranged marriages, stand up to chauvinistic bosses and call out abusive husbands.