Speech: “Together we will unleash girls’ power in all its dimensions”

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Lakshmi Puri during the UN commemoration of the International Day of the Girl Child 2017


Dear colleagues, distinguished participants and dear friends,

Good morning and happy International Day of the Girl.

Thank you for all of your commitment, enthusiasm and determination to make a difference for girls and thank you to all the girls who are here and beyond listening to us and working with us.

Thank you especially to UNICEF for once again hosting today’s event to commemorate the International Day of the Girl, which UN Women is pleased to co-sponsor.

UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri speaks at the official commemoration of International Day of the Girl Child. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann
Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Lakshmi Puri, speaks at the official commemoration of International Day of the Girl Child. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann

Let me say that too often adolescent girls face intersecting disadvantages because of their age, gender, ethnic background, sexual identity, religion affiliation, income, disability among other compounded factors. We have seen pictures, evoked images of girls in different situations that live with disadvantage, even without crisis. The perception and reality of vulnerability arising out of these multiple intersectionalities really creates that context of discrimination and differentiated impact of crisis.

During conflict or humanitarian situations, natural disasters or climate change, these factors exacerbate and disproportionately and differentially affect young women and girls due to neglect of their human rights and the intersecting forms gender-inequality and discrimination that they endure. So this is how we shine the light on this particular situation of girls in emergencies. As was mentioned, it is often forgotten that women and girls are not only helpless victims, they are sources of power, power to cope, power to prevent, power to reduce risk, power for resilience and transformation and to build back better after crisis. That is the power that we want to invoke and tap into.

We must be outraged about the disadvantages that girls still experience. But here has been some progress. Humanitarian actors and governments are much more aware today about addressing crises and resilience building with a gender lens and with a girls lens. But, we still have miles to go.

  • Imagine that to date, women and children account for more than 75 per cent of the refugees and displaced persons at risk from war, famine, persecution and natural disasters.
  • Every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies because of violence.
  • Up to one-third of adolescent girls report their first sexual experience as being forced and they are victims of sexual violence. Currently at least 133 million girls and women have experienced female genital mutilation.
  • Imagine, that more than 700 million women alive today were married below the age of 18 – and more than one in three (some 250 million) were married before 15. And we saw that in crisis, all of this is worse.
  • Child marriage is four times higher among Syrian refugees than before the crisis. Evidence shows that 2,400 interviewed married refugee Syrian women in Lebanon, aged 20 to 24 years old, 47 per cent were child brides.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provided us with 17 development goals, but also SDG 5, which is about “Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”, in all circumstances, including in crisis and humanitarian situations. This is a big win and a commitment of the international community and we must all work to see that it is realized, most of all in crisis situations. 

The 2030 Agenda has pledged to leave no one behind. This means that in our development efforts, girls must be a priority. The world should ensure girls are granted all the opportunities they deserve as they mature into adulthood. I would also like to mention something that has not been touched upon, which also plays out in crisis. The whole culture of ‘boy preference’ and ‘girl aversion’ has to be changed, where an equal valuing of girls is something that we must inculcate in all contexts.

Enabling girls to avoid child marriage and unwanted pregnancy, protect them against HIV transmission, and acquiring the education and skills they need to realize their potential, is a key priority toward 2030 and also a priority in crisis. Sometimes we forget that these are essential elements to be taken forward in crisis situations. 

Gender equality and empowering all women and girls is something that we seek to advance and if we fail to address girls’ differentiated needs and aspirations too, a generation will be lost and with it, our hope for sustainable development, prosperity, peace and security.

It is therefore critical to EmPOWER Girls: Before, during and after emergencies

One thing all emergencies have in common is that they create a new set of circumstances, which girls have to learn to navigate, but we, as adults around them, have to be in the forefront of prioritizing their needs and helping them navigate:

From one day to the next they may face the loss of their homes, friends and family members. They may suddenly be living in a shelter or have no shelter at all. They may not have access to basic services and amenities or be sure where their next meal is coming from. They may be fleeing the only place they have ever called home.

Furthermore, from the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh in which 90 per cent of the 140,000 people who lost their lives were women; to the 276 Chibok schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria in 2014, to the women representing the single-highest adversely affected group by the earthquake in Nepal, we know that resilience building and recovery have a girl’s face. Not only they because they are the most in need of urgent help and in higher risk of violence in the aftermath of the crisis situations, but also because of the critical role young women and girls play in preventing, preparing for, and recovering from natural and human made hazards.

So how do we reach these girls? How can we protect them? How can we inspire them? And how can we ensure they are not left behind?

From today’s presentations we learned that resilience building and planning cannot be sustainable if we do not involve girls’ voices in the planning itself. We cannot be successful unless girls are empowered to actively participate in the solutions; girl-driven solutions. Let them decide how best to address their most urgent and future needs. Let their voices be heard.

Not only can girls inspire innovative and creative solutions, but they can guide and contribute to future policies, research, programming and media campaigns.

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism, we will be working with UNICEF and we will be launching U-Report’s Ending Violence Against Girls Information Centre, which will connect young users directly to the information and tools they want, to be advocates for change in their own communities.

We also need to create safe spaces in which these girls can feel empowered. UN Women has the Safe Cities Programme. UN Women’s Safe Haven centres, for example, provide a space to women and girls to express themselves without fear of judgment and harm.

Empowering girls must also form the core of any protection and humanitarian service provision and resilience building. That is why UN Women is combining what we call the LEAP that is Leadership, Empowerment, Access and Protection, which is about gender-responsive humanitarian response. And our LEAPS strategy, which is about empowering young women–their leadership and economic empowerment. So, we have three flagship programmes to support women and girls in the context of humanitarian crisis.

While education is key to the future of adolescent girls, in conflict and humanitarian zones girls are 90 per cent more likely to be out of school when compared to girls in other, conflict-humanitarian free, countries.

We know that an extra year of primary school for girls increases their eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent, and that an extra year of secondary school increases them by 15 to 25 per cent.

Universal secondary education would cut child mortality in half. In Sub-Saharan Africa, maternal mortality could fall by 70 per cent.

We know also that when a girl sees herself as a leader or a mentor, it creates a positive force for change in her life.

As we end this morning’s commemoration, I have the pleasure of introducing the #FreedomForGirls film, which is currently available on Google’s homepage in over 50 countries. I invite everyone to share this powerful and inspiring film far and wide, to use the #FreedomForGirls hashtag to tell us what freedom really means to you, and to think about creative solutions for empowering girls in crisis settings, so that we can create a better future for us all.

Dear young people, leaders and champions,

In good times and in crisis—but specially in crisis and emergencies, all stakeholders and actors have a duty to care to make humanitarian response and resilience building work for, include and empower girls and young women.

On this International day of the Girl which zooms in on their rights before, during and after emergencies and crisis, let us take the following pledge:

Together we will protect girls' human rights in all circumstances;

Together we will foster girls’ capabilities in every field at all times;

Together we will make girl's voices heard in decision making;

Together we will promote and harness girl's leadership;

Together we will unleash girls’ power in all its dimensions;

Together we will ensure that girls’ full potential is realized, generation after generation.

Planet 5050 by 2030, there is where we all want to go. The SDGs are our today but it is also about our collective tomorrow and gender equality is our destination.

I thank you!