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Opinion: International Day of the Girl should be a promise for progress

Nationally and internationally, women and girls have more opportunities than a decade ago. But period poverty, violence and educational disadvantages are still setting them back

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Three little girls sit at a desk while one of them writes.

International Day of the Girl celebrates the progress toward international equality.

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Today, Oct. 11, is International Day of the Girl. It’s been a decade since the first International Day of the Girl was observed, and we have seen national and international progress in furthering opportunities and increasing health and safety for girls and women.

There has been measurable progress for the world’s girls in the last 10 years. More girls are finishing school, fewer adolescent girls are having babies, fewer child marriages are occurring and female genital mutilation has declined worldwide. That’s good news.

Still, girls face disparities that have very real consequences. Some 10 million girls are at risk of child marriage, and early marriages lead to early childbearing and increased risk to the life of the mother and the baby. Educational gaps have narrowed in the United States and even flipped to put girls in the lead academically, but in the least developed countries around the world, not even half of all girls make it through elementary school. When it comes to junior high and high school, the rates are 42% and a dismal 24%, respectively. Women make up nearly two-thirds of the adult population who cannot read. 

What we know about educating girls is that the more years of education a girl gets — in any country — the lower the rates of maternal and infant mortality, prematurity and failure-to-thrive in kids. Each year of schooling also reduces infant mortality by 5%–10%.

At the same time, babies’ birthweights increase, overall child health increases and the family’s overall well-being increases, while the mother’s lifetime earnings increase dramatically. Each additional year of primary school increases a girl’s eventual wages by 10%–20%. A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live past age 5 and twice as likely to attend school as a child whose mother cannot read.

Refugee girls face even more difficulties than the population at large. Girls in refugee camps are the most unlikely of any population in the world to go to school. They are at higher risk for sexual abuse, assault and other forms of gender-based violence at every step of their refugee journey than their male counterparts. They have less access to protection, less access to justice systems, less access to health care and as refugees, have lost their homes, in some cases members of their immediate families and their support network.

Girls (and women) continue to face discrimination because they have periods. “Period poverty,” defined as lack of access to appropriate supplies, hygiene facilities, waste management and education, impacts 500 million women worldwide. Lack of access to appropriate resources to manage one’s monthly cycle leads to missed school, health risks, including toxic shock syndrome, shame, embarrassment and even bullying. Some girls have even taken their own lives because they were publicly shamed when they bled through their clothing. 

Period poverty is not just occurring in developing countries. It’s an issue right here at home. One in four girls can’t afford to purchase period products, 46% of women in poverty have had to choose between period products and a meal and nearly 90% of women surveyed have started their periods unexpectedly and have been without the supplies they needed. Utah’s Period Project and its founder, Emily Bell McCormick, worked on getting legislation passed for several years that would help alleviate period poverty. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature unanimously passed a bill that requires public schools to stock free period products and funded it through a public-private partnership.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that achieving “gender equality is the unfinished business of our time and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.” I believe we’re up to the challenge. 

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy and the mom to many girls (and boys).