Geneva, 11 October 2012
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be with you today for the launch of the “Because I am a Girl” campaign, to commemorate this first international Day of the Girl Child. I would like to thank and applaud Plan International for its vision of creating a better world through a focus on girls. I would also like to thanks Switzerland, Canada, Peru, Finland and Turkey for their support for this initiative. The campaign “Because I am a Girl” underscores the vital importance of right to education for girls, which in turn empowers them to claim a multitude of other rights. Indeed, if there is one area in human rights that I need to choose to give priority attention and limited resources, I would without any second thought vote for the education of girls.
As we meet, I am sure all of our hearts reach out to Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. She is still struggling for her life. The outrage over the fact that a 14 year old girl has become the target of shoot-to-kill terror just for refusing to give up on her right to education defies description. The perpetrator must be brought to justice for the shocking crime, and Malala must be given all the support that we can muster, so that she can fully recover, physically and mentally, and continue on her courageous journey to fully claim her rights, in safety and dignity.
Ladies and gentlemen,
At the core of OHCHR’s mandate is ensuring women’s and girls’ rights, eliminating discrimination against women and girls, and the achievement of gender equality. We strive to ensure that our activities here at headquarters, in New York, and in the field, to strengthen and implement international human rights norms and to promote and protect the human rights of all, and fully address the particular circumstances of women and girls. The full protection of the human rights of women and girls is not only required under the international human rights obligations which States have adhered to, but it is also a critical to achieving lasting peace and sustainable development. Investing in girls is to invest in a better future for all.
Sadly, discrimination based on sex continues to be pervasive, and is manifested in many ways. It begins before a girl is even born, when her parents may decide that female life is less valuable than male life, leading to gender-biased sex selection. Once a girl comes into the world, the reality of discrimination means that she may be fed less, suffering irreversible health impacts. As she grows, it may be decided that she should be fetching water and cleaning the house, rather than going to school. If she is lucky enough to go to school, she may not remain as she reaches adolescence because she is married off. If she becomes pregnant, whether married or not, she is also unlikely to finish school, and runs a high risk of dying in childbirth. She may also drop out of school when she reaches the age of menstruation because the school provides no adequate sanitary facilities. Violence against girls on the way to and from school, as well as at school, may also be factors leading to high dropout rates among girls. If she stays in school, she may be tracked into traditionally feminine areas of study and professions, which typically earn less than male dominated professions, perpetuating her economic dependence on a male family member, whether husband, brother, father or other. And if the girl or woman has not been enabled to claim certain rights due to discrimination, including the right to education, the right to health, the right to work, and so on, the likelihood of her children enjoying these rights diminishes. And the cycle of discrimination continues.
At every turn, this cycle of discrimination reveals profound human rights violations. We need to break this cycle, and we can only do so by working together, at many different levels and utilizing a variety of creative strategies to guarantee the human rights of girls and women. OHCHR endeavors to fight discrimination against women and girls, and to promote gender equality, in multiple ways. We work with other UN agencies to provide policy guidance on responding to gender-specific human rights problems. Last year, together with UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO, we released an interagency statement on ‘Preventing Gender-Biased Sex Selection’, which includes concrete recommendations on how to address gender-biased sex selection in line with human rights obligations. We work with Governments to reform discriminatory laws or to encourage adoption of laws guaranteeing equality. We are currently working on gender equality laws in Afghanistan, Malawi, Mali, Senegal and Swaziland among other countries. We also work with women and girls to raise awareness of the rights they are entitled to under human rights treaties, especially the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Our work to improve women’s access to justice includes direct support to women through legal consultations and trainings, capacity building for judges and lawyers to respond appropriately to violations of women’s and girls’ human rights, training for prosecutors on effectively investigating human rights violations against women and support to national human rights institutions, among other activities. OHCHR also provides technical assistance to Governments seeking to apply a human rights based approach to their policies and programmes, which includes central attention to gender equality. This is done in many different contexts, such as national development plans, poverty reduction strategies, and sector specific policies. For instance, we recently launched a technical guidance on a human rights based approach to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity. Although principally directed at health policy makers, this guidance takes a holistic and integrated approach, emphasizing that reducing maternal mortality cannot be reduced to just health policy making, but requires engagement of many other areas of government work, such as education. With adolescent girls being one of the groups most at risk of suffering death or debilitating injury in childbirth, the implementation of this guidance is particularly relevant for the protection of girls and their rights.
In our efforts to mainstream human rights across development policies and programmes, we have made particular efforts to highlight that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) cannot be achieved without attention to human rights, including women’s human rights. The Millennium Declaration included strong language on human rights and women’s rights. However, while the Goals which emerged from the Declaration addressed pressing global issues, they left many gaps in terms of understanding that these issues are basic human rights. MDG monitoring suggests that girls’ enrolment in school is one area that has improved, however this monitoring only captures primary education, only examines enrolment rather than completion rates, and does not scrutinise the content of educational materials, which can reinforce discrimination against girls and women.
Fully ensuring girls’ right to education requires broader efforts to achieve gender equality. The post 2015 development agenda must address these shortcomings in the MDG framework if truly sustainable and equitable development is to be achieved. One of the most unforgettable stories from my many travels to this field this year is about a 19 year old mother of four in a remote village in Niger, married off at the age of 13 and living a life that is entirely beyond her control, over which she had no say. When told by an aid worker that she could receive an infertility shot that would prevent pregnancy for the next three months, she produced the biggest smile that he had ever seen on the face of a young women in Niger. The thought that she did not have to worry about another unwanted pregnancy for the next three months gave her such joy. How profoundly sad and unjust! But I came back from the visit with the hope for her and other women and girls of the country, as they now have a President and government who are deeply committed to serving the people, advancing gender equality and governance based on human rights. The story of such lives without control or choice repeats itself for countless girls and women in so many corners of the world. It is for them that the post 2015 global development agenda must make a real difference.
Thank you for your attention.