International Day of the Girl Child: Using improvement to respond to the needs of vulnerable girls

Elizabeth Romanoff Silva


October 11th marks the International Day of the Girl Child, an internationally recognized day designated by the United Nations to promote the rights of girls and to bring awareness to the unique challenges they face around the world. Globally, girls encounter many constraints that limit their ability to access education, to live a life free from violence, to delay marriage and pregnancy until adulthood, and to be involved in making important decisions that affect their lives.

Globally, approximately one third of girls are married before they turn 18. Girls who marry before adulthood are more likely to be taken out of school, experience violence, and become pregnant before they reach adulthood.  Early marriage also puts them at greater risk of HIV.

An adolescent girl gives birth in an ASSIST-supported health facility in rural Tanzania

But there are many solutions to the problems facing girls. Fulfilling girls’ rights as a child, including their right to education, health, and protection from violence and abuse means girls have the chance to reach their full potential and become empowered women who can support and care for their families and be leaders in their communities and countries.

Through the USAID ASSIST Project, we use an improvement approach to identify and respond to gender-related inequalities and gaps affecting outcomes. In our Vulnerable Children and Families (VCF) programs, we systematically identify and respond to the specific needs of vulnerable girls and vulnerable boys. The USAID ASSIST Project works in Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda to improve services for vulnerable girls and vulnerable boys.

Each program uses the science of improvement to identify and respond to the specific needs of girls and boys. In Kenya, where primary school enrollment and retention rates are lower for girls than boys, our team supported local communities to create a girls’ mentorship program and educate students, parents, teachers, community members and provincial administrators on the rights and needs of children, including the importance of educating girls.

This led to an increase in reintegration rates among girls, including girls who had specifically been taken out of school to be married. The team also identified the lack of sanitary pads as a contributing factor to school dropout rates and worked with implementing partners to allocate special funds in three primary schools to purchase sanitary pads for girls.  Parents and guardians of vulnerable girls were also sensitized on the importance of providing sanitary pads. Based on these efforts, the team increased the proportion of girls graduating from primary school, as well as boys, and has made progress to close the gap between girls and boys and to improve reintegration rates overall.

It’s important that men and boys be included as part of the solution to empower girls and to champion the cause of gender equality. The lives of girls are greatly influenced by their family and communities, and without bringing fathers on board with the importance of keeping girls in school and delaying marriage until they are adults, a program will rarely have the intended impact.  It’s also critical to systematically identify and address the specific needs of vulnerable boys, including their susceptibility to income-generating child labor activities and their increased risk of experiencing physical violence.

On the International Day of the Girl Child, it’s important to realize that while there are numerous issues facing girls around the world, much progress has been made. Through the USAID ASSIST Project, our holistic approach to address the needs of both girls and boys has shown great progress in improving psychosocial support and educational outcomes among girls and boys.

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