Asha* was just 13 when she was forced to move in with her aunts because her parents had to move away for work. Despite the change, she was optimistic. She was looking forward to starting secondary school – and felt lucky in a country, Tanzania, where three-quarters of girls don’t get more than a primary education.
But when Asha moved, her aunts broke the news that they could not pay for her school fees. Devastated, Asha had to drop out of school and put her future hopes on hold.
That same year, aged 13, she was forced to marry. Her husband quickly became abusive, beating her daily and often withholding food. Soon she was pregnant and felt like she lost all hope to continue her education.
It’s the situation of children like Asha, denied the right to survive and learn through a combination of poverty and discrimination, which has driven Save the Children to launch its new global campaign, Every Last Child.
We know the world has made unprecedented progress for children. Since 1990, the world has halved child mortality and the number of out-of-school children. But it’s also the case that there’s a huge unfinished agenda. Each year, over six million children die from preventable causes. Almost 60 million children remain out of primary school, and four times that number are in school but failing to learn. Increasingly, these children are being denied the opportunity to survive and learn because of who they are and where they live. We need new and innovative approaches to reach the most excluded children and deliver on the ambition set out in the Global Goals.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development needs to start with girls. Without urgent action to tackle gender-based exclusion, progress will be stymied not just for children, but for whole societies. Future prosperity and stability depends on a generation of girls reaching adulthood healthy, educated and empowered.
When we invest in a girl’s education, especially at the secondary level, it begins to create a virtuous cycle. An educated girl not only boosts her lifelong economic prospects, but also the education and health of any future children. Completing a secondary education delays the age at which girls get married, and reduces the risks to herself and her babies during childbirth. Children born to a mother who can read are 50% more likely to survive past age five. And educated mothers delay the age at which they first give birth, which leads to children who are more likely to survive and thrive.
Unlike the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, the new Agenda explicitly recognises these powerful synergies and sets out an integrated framework to combat gender discrimination, and realise the rights of women and girls globally. Goal 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – for example, clearly outlines specific areas in which girls must be supported and protected. But intent counts for little unless we translate it into action. We must act to remove the barriers that continue to prevent millions of girls from surviving, learning and being protected.
So what can be done? Through our campaign, we’re calling for three guarantees, which we believe can start to tackle the barriers which undermine progress for children like Asha. Through a guarantee of fair finance, governments can create global rules and national systems that raise and spend money in ways that get every child the essential services they need to survive and learn. A guarantee of equal treatment will entail changes in laws and policies that discriminate against children on the basis of gender, ethnicity, nationality or disability. It will also need to challenge and change the attitudes and behaviours that reflect and sustain those laws and policies. And a guarantee of accountability to children can start to give excluded children and their communities a voice in the decisions that affect them, starting with a transparent monitoring of progress towards the 2030 goals.
This is an agenda that the Women Deliver conference, meeting this week in Copenhagen, can play a critical role in promoting. And it’s an agenda that the UN, national governments and civil society needs to grasp and implement. If it does, children like Asha will start to see a very different future mapped out, in which the right to survival, learning and protection is a reality, not a privilege.
*Name has been changed.