This year’s global theme for the International Day of the Girl Child is “Our time is now-our rights, our future”, offering us an inspirational entry point to advocate for, promote and celebrate the girl child’s rights, translating into actions that will build a better world for them. The first celebration of International Day of the Girl Child was on 11th October 2012, making this year the 10th commemoration.
Ten years later, the condition of the girl child across the world is still a matter of shame and concern. Uganda is a country where social disadvantage outweighs the natural biological advantage of being a girl. Girls are disadvantaged and are not enjoying their fundamental human rights. These rights include non-discrimination, the right to survival, protection from harmful influences, exploitation and full participation in family and social life, amongst others.
In some communities, it is still challenging for the girl child to pride in her gender because she has continuously been undervalued and violated. This has greatly influenced the health and well-being of the girl child, her personal development, participation in society and ability to achieve her fullest potential. At the early age of 13 even before they hit menstruation, girls are forced into marriage. Imagine how miserable that girl child will be for most of her ‘married’ life. Several of them have also been sexually abused by relatives, guardians and community members but nothing has been done to stop this. The abusers are never castigated while the girls are dealing with the consequences like unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases while continuing to be victimised.
Violation of the rights of the girl child begins with denying her the right to education. Education is an essential tool for achieving the goals of equality, development and peace. It is evident that girls are more likely to be kept out of school than boys. They have missed out on education simply because the girl child is obliged to stay home and do house chores with their mothers as the boys went to school. It is not okay that a boy’s education is valued over a girl’s. While these cases are majorly seen happening in the rural areas, even in the urban areas, the prospects of the girl child are not too bright as well. Although women are acquiring status and positions in places of influence, they still do not get the respect their male counterparts get in the offices. Besides no matter what status a woman achieves outside the home, inside the home setting, by and large, she remains an object of care for work and domestic responsibilities. It thus appears that even education and financial independence have not helped them in enhancing their status and rights.
“Our time is now-our rights, our future” is a theme that aims at empowering, advocating and protecting the virtue of the girl child is a social development policy that works and a long-term investment that yields exceptionally high. A glance at the current slow and patchy progress towards equality, reveals that we were overly ambitious to expect the eradication of a regime of gender inequality and outright oppression that has lasted for over a thousand years in only a few years. We have also been held back by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in a number of other human rights violations. The effects of the pandemic on the girl child are dire and need immediate action and if not addressed, may last a lifetime.
It is time, therefore, that we begin to do the right thing. It is crucial for generations to come together to reimagine the type of world we want to create for the girl child. We ought to take note that is every individual’s constitutional right to acquire education, and the future of the nation rests on the education of all its youth. This does not exclude pregnant and young mothers, whom we should mentor and encourage to report back to school and finish their education. But education doesn’t stop with the girl child alone. School leaders, teachers, parents and community leaders also need to be sensitised and made aware of tirelessly emphasising the need for educating the girl child. By doing so the girl child acquires enough knowledge and viable skills to advocate for themselves, accomplish their goals and live a healthy and comfortable life.
We need to empower and support the girl child to engage in decision-making more than ever, and in that regard, every girl can decide what to do with her body, her life and her future. Girls must be encouraged to speak up, and to have a meaningful voice, ensuring they can engage in the planning and implementation of their rights. And this can only be achieved if the girl child is taught about their rights, for they need to have a clear idea of the issues affecting them, address what they would like to voice, that their voices are meaningfully recognised and that they can do so in a safe and child-friendly format. The boy child should also be taught how to exist with empowered girls as equals rather than competitors.
We need to make necessary investments and hold ourselves accountable for results. But investment in the girl child goes beyond monetary endowments. It is about making long-term efforts at demystifying harmful misconceptions that affect the girl child. It is therefore an appeal to the Government and other responsible organs to ensure the passing and implementation of policies such as the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy in the country by 2026, and the National School Health Policy among others. It is also important to mainstream the gender perspective into all policy programmes in order to generate awareness and elevate the girl child.
Uganda has well-developed policies on young people, gender equality and girls’ education, which are often backed up by laws. However, there are certain gaps in advocacy, focus and coordination, while significant problems remain in implementation and enforcement capacity. It is important to enhance the effectiveness of legal redress mechanisms and child protection systems and to enact district-level ordinances to back up and pave way for the implementation of national laws.
It is nevertheless noteworthy that a number of girls have “made it in life”. They have graduated from school, taken on professions and risen to positions of political leadership, successfully balancing their role with family commitments. So, as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, let us celebrate the success stories of the girl child and also join hands and analyse why gender equality gaps still persist and how we can deal with it immediately. Let us all act now and provide a friendly environment for the girl child.
The writer is an intern in the Community Empowerment Programme at CEHURD.