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Ensuring Girls Have the Right to Thrive

Posted by: Lara Kaufmann Director of Public Policy

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International Day of the Girl is celebrated on October 11 to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. At Girls Inc., we believe girls have the right to be safe, respected, and valued. They have the right to access education, pursue meaningful careers, and excel as leaders in their schools and communities. Yet, every day, in communities across the U.S., girls encounter significant obstacles to their well-being and success.

Ensuring girls grow up strong, smart, and bold requires a two-pronged approach. The first is directly serving girls. That means providing girls with the education, resources, services, and experiences that allow them to make informed, healthy decisions and fuel their beliefs about who they are and what they can become. We must also improve the conditions in which all girls are growing up. That means advocating for policies and practices that expand opportunities for girls, and raising awareness to create a culture that supports, uplifts, and affirms girls.

As we prepare to commemorate International Day of the Girl, let us reflect on the achievements we’ve made on behalf of girls and women in the U.S., and the barriers that still remain.

The good news

More women are running for office — Consider this: 23 women are running for Senate seats; 239 are running for the House of Representatives, and 16 women are running for state governor. We still have a long way to go until our leadership is truly reflective of our people, but this is unprecedented and exciting. Just for context, today women make up only 20% of the U.S. Congress. The more women are in positions of power, the more girls will be able to envision that possibility for themselves.

Young people are speaking out — This past year, we’ve seen more young people organizing and taking action to address issues that threaten their well-being, such as gun violence and the rescission of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration status program. They have demonstrated their power, and their voices have put these issues at the forefront of policymakers’ agendas. Youth are the voters and candidates of tomorrow, and with the right support and encouragement, they can lead change now.

Awareness of sexual harassment and violence reaches watershed moment – Girls Inc. has long been aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence and its impact on girls. Since #MeToo went viral almost one year ago, more survivors have come forward to share their stories, making it much harder for the public to deny that something must be done.

The tough reality

Title IX rollback – The Department of Education is trying to reform rules around schools’ obligations to address sexual harassment and assault, making it harder for survivors to continue their education. Yet sexual harassment and assault are pervasive, including in K-12 schools which need serious help understanding and complying with civil rights laws. One in four girls experiences sexual abuse or assault before she turns 18, and seven out of ten girls reports experiencing sexual harassment while in high school. If these issues are not addressed at the K-12 level, we will continue to see the same patterns repeated on college campuses and in the workplace.

Teen pregnancy prevention and healthy relationship education – Congress continues to try to cut funding for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs and to increase funding for abstinence-only programs that are ineffective and harmful. But we should continue to invest in programs that work to prevent unintended pregnancies, not turn back the clock. Also, a recent study found that only 24 U.S. states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools, and of those only eight states require mention of consent or sexual assault. Yet not talking about it does not make it go away. To the contrary, kids who do not get answers at school will seek them out from peers or on the internet. We have a long way to go on this.

School discipline policies – The Department of Education has indicated that it may rescind guidance to schools about how to create safe and positive school climates and administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race. That guidance is an important resource for schools, though, because students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled in violation of their civil rights. In particular, Black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended than white girls, often for minor and subjective offenses tied to race and sex stereotypes or for behaviors related to unaddressed trauma. Educators need more tools for creating safe learning environments where all kids can thrive, not fewer.

Girls Inc. created our Girls Bill of Rights decades ago to crystallize our belief that girls deserve every opportunity to thrive. As a global community, we must continue to use our power and position to advocate on girls’ behalf, and provide them the resources and space to lead in these efforts. As we celebrate International Day of the Girl, let us all do what we can to ensure every girl can reach her fullest potential.