The International Day Of The Girl Is A Day For Poignant Reflection

11/10/2017 17:35 BST | Updated 11/10/2017 17:35 BST
Ed Freeman via Getty Images

Heading home from the Conservative Party Conference last week, I happily chatted to my eldest daughter on the phone about my few days in Manchester. It's perhaps no surprise, given the nature of my job, that I am raising two little girls who are particularly clued-in to British politics; but even I was amazed by the biting political commentary that my 12-year-old supplied about the headlines of the day.

It made for a particularly poignant moment of reflection for me as I realised just how enthusiastic a modern young woman can be when she is empowered to share her thoughts and feelings freely; and this is something celebrated by the UN's 'International Day of the Girl Child' on 11 October every year.

As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament, I continue to have a very keen interest in women's issues, and I am proud that the Government have already taken steps to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls' empowerment. This, of course, is not just a matter for the Department for International Development or for the Minister for Women; but an issue that comes up in the Home Office, in the Department for Health, and even the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport.

The cross-Government Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy has recently been backed by an extra £100million of funding, and a particularly integral part of this scheme is work done to tackle Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is a barbaric practice, and it is right that steps have been taken to strengthen the law to protect girls from the lifelong physical and psychological effects of this abuse.

There is also the significant burden of cervical cancer in the UK and abroad. Thanks to the vaccination programme now running in the UK, more than three million teenage girls have been vaccinated against the Human Papillomavirus. Even better, the UK is the largest contributor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which vaccinate girls in developing countries. By 2020, Gavi will have vaccinated 40million girls against HPV, preventing an estimated 900,000 deaths.

In the UK, education continues to be a major tool for improving gender equality, and I am excited to see how funding programmes in schools that encourage girls to take-up STEM subjects will open doors for my daughters' generation so that they consider and take-up a wider range of careers, including those in higher paying sectors traditionally dominated by men. Further afield, the Government has supported 11.3million children (including 5.3million girls) in primary and secondary education between 2010 and 2015 through international development programmes, with a pledge to support a further 11million before 2020. I hope that by giving girls the tools to learn, they will be given the tools to express their power, energy and creativity beyond the oppressive ideas of the past.

I must also admit my concerns for our girls and the digital world they are growing up in. Social media, and the online world is something that has changed the playing-field when it comes to being a teenager. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook - all can be amazing tools for self-expression and for forging friendships. But, as is so commonly documented, it does have a sinister side. It's a tricky balance, allowing our girls to have the world at their finger-tips, whilst also protecting them from themes that are simply too mature.

The wide range of topics I've touched on here are demonstrative of the myriad of issues facing young girls - and how, while the Department for International Development have already reached 7.3million women and girls with humanitarian assistance over the last two years, there will always be more to be done to protect the four billion women in the world.

So on this day, the sixth Annual Day of the Girl, I am grateful to think of the progress this Government has made and eager to see how we can shape the future opportunities for women and girls which are growing and must be taken advantage of - but I must also stress how much further there is to go. As UNESCO's own Director General, Irina Bokova has said, "no society will flourish and no peace agreement will be lasting without empowering girls", and this should be all our mandate going forward.