By Khadyja Sy & Lindsay Glassco
Khadyja Sy is a youth and women’s rights advocate from Dakar, Senegal. Lindsay Glassco is President and CEO of Plan International Canada.
DAKAR – Sudanese protester Alaa Salah became a symbol of her country’s revolution after standing atop a car, dressed in white, and singing to her fellow demonstrators. Ugandan climate-justice activist Vanessa Nakate went from protesting alone at the gates of her country’s parliament to demanding action from world leaders at the United Nations. Senegalese activist Oumou has harnessed digital tools to start taboo-breaking conversations about intimate health, sexuality, contraception, and period poverty.
These young women are fighting for better lives for themselves, their communities, and the world – and they are not alone. Thousands of girls and young women in Africa and around the world are fighting to change the power dynamics that perpetuate inequality and prevent marginalized groups from exercising their fundamental rights. They are making speeches, creating nonprofits and community programs, and participating in marches to catalyze transformative change. This is good news for everyone: countless studies have shown that when girls and women are empowered, entire communities benefit.
But hard-won gains on gender equality are now in jeopardy. The COVID-19 pandemic has undone years of progress on poverty reduction and fueled a sharp rise in inequality, with disproportionate consequences for girls and women.
Studies show that amid economic hardship, families are more likely to marry off their young daughters, thereby denying girls the right to choose whom they spend their lives with and when and how many children they have. UNICEF estimates that ten million girls worldwide are at risk of child marriage over the next decade because of COVID-19. Moreover, girls and women are more likely to face sexual and gender-based violence during times of crisis – a trend that has been borne out during the pandemic.
Making matters worse, as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health Tlaleng Mofokeng has pointed out, lockdowns, movement restrictions, and the diversion of funds to pandemic-related programs jeopardized access to sexual- and reproductive-health services, from information about menstruation and fertility to contraception. Specialized services for victims of gender-based violence also became inaccessible to many.
All of this has contributed to a sharp rise in unwanted and early pregnancies, and drastically reduced girls’ chances of returning to their studies once schools reopened. According to UNICEF, more than 11 million girls may never return to school after COVID-19.
Simply put, the pandemic has wiped out decades of progress toward gender equality, with the most vulnerable groups – such as displaced women and girls – being hit the hardest. To be sure, even in the face of such massive setbacks, young women and girls are not giving up. But they cannot overcome the powerful forces working against them alone.
Meaningful engagement from men is crucial here. Initiatives like the clubs des pères (father’s clubs) or the écoles de maris (husband schools) in Senegal can make a significant difference. The goal is to foster positive (rather than toxic) masculinity, encourage men to share more of the burden of unpaid care work, and bring about improvements in child and maternal health.
Engagement with community and religious leaders, as well as with health-care workers and women’s rights organizations, also is essential. Given the proven power of female role models to inspire younger generations, elevating the platforms of older women leaders and activists – such as “super granny” Aminata and midwife Madame Badji – can boost younger women’s ambition and impact.
Likewise, amplifying the voices of young leaders can inspire and invigorate their peers. Ubah Ali, a Somaliland activist, was persuaded that she too could lead, that she could “raise her voice” and “be an agent of change,” when she saw other girls in positions of leadership. Today, she is working to eradicate all forms of female genital mutilation across Somaliland, and to support survivors of the practice.
But perhaps nothing will do more to ensure that young women and girls can fulfill their potential as forces of change than protecting and respecting their rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights. This is a job for governments, first and foremost, though everyone has a role to play.
The pandemic is just the beginning. With climate change and rising food insecurity also set to hurt women and girls disproportionately, the barriers to progress on gender equality are as high as the stakes. The first step toward overcoming them is to acknowledge the challenges girls and women face, and to amplify the difficult and important work they are doing.
A world where all girls and young women hold equal power would be better for everyone. That is why it is in everyone’s interest to help them achieve it.