Report: Plan International finds 1 in 3 girls said they never speak up in front of boys


In their latest report, “Hear Our Voices: Do Adolescent Girls really Matter?”, Plan International spoke directly with over 7,000 adolescent girls and boys (aged 12-16) in 11 countries across four regions; namely Asia (Bangladesh, Pakistan), Latin America (Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay), Eastern/Southern Africa (Egypt, Uganda, Zimbabwe) and West Africa (Benin, Cameroon and Liberia).

This is one of the largest studies of adolescent girls’ rights and empowerment that any organisation in the development sector has ever undertaken and the results bring an amazing insight into what it means to be a teenage girl in the developing world.

They found that girls feel encouraged and empowered to succeed in school (including- or perhaps especially the girls whose mothers have been denied education while they were young); 70% of the interviewed girls and 69% of boys report that adolescent girls ‘always’ or ‘often’ participate in class as often as boys; although, particularly in Asia, social norms around gender and seniority still prevent young female students from directly addressing the mostly male teachers.

Obvious progress is being made (due to changing social norms and mentalities, civil society programmes) as far as ensuring girls themselves, their parents and communities value the idea of girls achieving academically and professionally.

On the other hand, the burden of housework still falls almost exclusively with girls and women; and household work takes time away from studying

More worrying, over half of the girls in the study feel that becoming pregnant is never or seldom their decision; and only 38% feel that they have decisional power over getting married. Girls in Latin America and Southern/Eastern Africa feel the most empowered in relation to decisions about marriage: 53% feel that it is always or often their decision whether and when they get married.In contrast, in Asia, 69% of girls said they ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ control decisions about their marriage.

Girls feel even less empowered about pregnancy: 71 per cent of girls in West Africa, 55 per cent of girls in Asia, 48 per cent of girls in East and Southern Africa , and 42 per cent of girls in Central and South America reported they ‘never’ or‘seldom’ decide if they get pregnant. Girls across all regions said they are not educated about safe sex nor do they know how to prevent pregnancy

Early pregnancy is an important contributing factor to girls dropping out of school; especially in Asia, where over 80% of participants reported that adolescent girls ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ return to school after having a baby. At the same time, according to some respondents across the study, it is easier for boys than for girls to return to school after becoming parents.

Having worked myself on data analysis for the Because I Am a Girl yearly reports, I find that this report very much reflects something I’ve been thinking a lot about in relation to my BIAAG research: it’s quite clear that, culturally speaking, communities where girls receive less education than boys, marry young and spend their lives as subservient housewives do not value girls being kept barefoot in the kitchen as “how things should be”. Many of them, especially women and the younger generation, are actually keenly aware that it is much better for girls to marry, say, at 24 and not 14, to complete education, to earn their own living; but they see achievement and failure in relation to the life they want as things outside of their control (which, in the context of structural inequality and marginalisation may well be founded); which in turn makes them less proactive and less likely to access information.

The study also looks as gender relations in everyday interactions :51% of girls involved in the study said that adolescent girls ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ say what they think when a boy or man is around.

There are important regional differences; 93 per cent of girls in one area in Ecuador said girls ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ say what they think when a boy or man is around, and nearly three-quarters of girls in areas in Uganda (72%) and Pakistan (70%) reported ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ speaking up in front of a man.

In East and Southern Africa, 41-46 per cent of girls in Zimbabwe claimed they ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ feel valued, while only 3-12 per cent of girls in Egypt expressed the same feelings.

Again, this ties into the issue of empowerment and education: it may be that girls’ and their families’ desire for academic attainment is linked to their desire to (at least partly) challenge the status quo: if you don’t feel valued in your community because of your gender, work twice as hard in hope you will be valued for your knowledge.

This very much reminded me of a TED talk by Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai– in which he said:

You see, in patriarchal societies, right from the very beginning, when a girl is born, her birth is not celebrated. She is not welcomed, neither by father nor by mother. The neighborhood comes and commiserates with the mother, and nobody congratulates the father. […] Not only the mother suffers, but the daughter, the newly born daughter, when she grows old, she suffers too […] when she becomes 13 years old, she is forbidden to go out of her home without a male escort. She is confined under the four walls of her home. She is no more a free individual.[…] A good girl is supposed to be very quiet, very humble and very submissive. It is the criteria. The role model good girl should be very quiet. She is supposed to be silent and she is supposed to accept the decisions of her father and mother and the decisions of elders, even if she does not like them. If she is married to a man she doesn’t like or if she is married to an old man, she has to accept, because she does not want to be dubbed as disobedient. If she is married very early, she has to accept. Otherwise, she will be called disobedient. And what happens at the end? In the words of a poetess, she is wedded, bedded, and then she gives birth to more sons and daughters [perpetuating the same cycle]. […] Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently“.

Does more girls having access to education mean they will be more valued in their communities? Or is it rather the case that until communities will start valuing girls and women as individuals- addressing collectively the existing barriers to success- it would be very hard for the cause of girls’ education to register much progress?

You can read the report here.


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