As Malala recovers, U.N. marks International Day of the Girl Child

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As Malala Yousafzai lay in a Pakistani hospital recovering from gunshot wounds, the United Nations on Thursday marked its first International Day of the Girl Child.

The U.N. event, planned long before Malala was shot this week, focused on an end to child marriage and emphasized the importance of educating girls, the cause that put Malala in the sights of a Taliban gunman.


“Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families.”

Ban urged all members of society, including governments, community and religious leaders and families -- especially men and boys -- to promote the rights of girls.

“Let us do our part to let girls be girls, not brides,” he said.

The Tuesday attack on Malala, who angered militants by speaking out against efforts to ban education for girls, appalled Pakistanis and again thrust the issue into the global spotlight. The 14-year-old, who was reportedly out of danger of dying from her wounds, was on a school bus when she was shot.

A new report released Thursday by Plan International says that while the average teen girl now gets more years of education than ever before, the numbers largely reflect strides made by China and India, masking the fact that many poor countries have made little or no progress in educating girls. Girls are thwarted from going to school for a long and varied list of reasons, some of which also keep boys out of school. The obstacles include poverty, prejudice against women, early marriage and safety threats.

Less than a fifth of girls in Niger, for instance, are in school. In Mali, roughly a third attend classes. And in Senegal and Guinea, less than half are in school. Education rates are also dismal for Roma girls in eastern Europe; only 9% of Roma girls in the Slovak Republic go to high school, the group wrote.

The bulk of young people who are not in school are in South Asia and Africa, regions that also have glaring gender gaps, the report said. Rural girls are even less likely to go to school than urban ones, as girls are tasked with gathering firewood, finding water and childcare to help their families scrape by.

Other girls are kept out of school by marriage. UNICEF estimates a third of young women worldwide -- 70 million -- are married before they turn 18, including 23 million girls wed before the age of 15. Marrying young almost always ends schooling for girls, the United Nations said Thursday.

School fees and hidden costs block other girls from school. Others are turned away by lengthy treks on roads riddled with danger. And still others fear sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers or classmates, the report found. In some Francophone countries in West Africa, sexual coercion by teachers is so familiar that students coined the phrase ‘moyennes sexuellement transmissibles’ -- sexually transmitted grades.

“My mathematics teacher asked me to fall in love with him,” a teen girl in Sierra Leone told the group. When she failed to do so, “this became a problem between us. Any small mistake or bad thing I did, I am almost always punished.” She began to hate school. She dropped out. Many parents said educating girls would do little to improve their chances of a good future. Harika, a girl in India, told Plan International her parents allowed her to study after she pleaded for the chance, but warned that if a suitor came calling, her education would come to a halt.

Other parents want change. For the sixth year, Plan International has followed 142 girls in nine countries around the world to better understand their lives. This year, it focused on their mothers, who overwhelmingly said they wanted their daughters to be better educated than they were.

“I became a little woman when I was 7,” recalled Austria, a grandmother from the Dominican Republic who raised her brothers and sisters alongside her mother, then was sent to help her grandmother wash dishes and pluck chickens. “I am not going to do this with my children.”

The U.N. Population Fund announced Thursday it would invest another $20 million over the next five years to reach girls at risk of child marriage in countries such as Guatemala, India, Niger and Zambia. Plan International recommended that countries scrutinize gender equality in their educational systems, recruit more female teachers, boost school funding and use technology to bring education to more girls.

Malala had spoken out against Taliban destruction of schools for girls in her Swat Valley homeland and was awarded a Pakistani national award for promoting peace last year. Her activism made her a Taliban target for ‘preaching secularism.’

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles