Putting Girls First

12 April 2011
Author: UNFPA

Statement of UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin at Commission on Population and Development side-event 'Putting Girls First'

Good afternoon. On behalf of UNFPA, I am delighted to be with you today to highlight that we must put girls first in order to make strides in development and social justice.

I am also delighted to share this podium with close partners who are pioneers in this field: IPPF, the Population Council, and youth activists on the ground. It is through your work in the communities that we are able to make a difference in the lives of so many girls.

Adolescents and youth, especially girls, are at the heart of UNFPA’s agenda, and as the new Executive Director, they are my top priority.

I am proud that UNFPA co-chairs the UN Adolescent Girls Task Force with UNICEF, and together with other sister agencies I am happy to reaffirm our commitment to empower the hardest-to-reach adolescent girls.

These girls are the unexpected solution to many of the world’s most pressing problems, provided that we invest in them and promote their rights.

I want to highlight three key points:

First, investing in adolescent girls benefits everyone. When they flourish, their families and communities flourish as well.

The benefits go a long way in a girl’s lifetime, and for generations to come. Investing in adolescent girls is the smartest investment a country can make.

When she is educated, healthy and skilled, she will be an active citizen in her community. She will become a mother when she is ready and who will invest in her future children’s health and education. She will be the entrepreneur discovering solutions that breaks the cycle of poverty, one girl at a time.

Multiply this by 500 million girls in the developing world and imagine the possibilities.

These girls are part of the largest youth generation in history, and when they enter the workforce educated, skilled, and healthy – and especially if they are able to delay family formation until they are ready – they can put their countries on a path for greater prosperity, peace, and progress.

Second, the 500 million adolescent girls in the developing world need urgent attention and programmes delivered to fit their circumstances.

Putting girls first means promoting their rights and gender equality, and prioritizing them within national programmes for health, education, livelihoods, and security.

We must capitalize on this critical period in their lives and channel our energies to end child marriage; keep girls in school; stop violence against girls; provide girls with the right skills and opportunities; and promote comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education and access sexual and reproductive health.

In the last decade, we have not seen enough progress on decreasing adolescent pregnancy rates, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where recent figures suggest they may have actually increased.

It is indefensible that complications from pregnancy are the leading causes of death among adolescent girls ages 15-19, killing tens of thousands of girls every year.

No women should die giving life, especially not a young girl who has her whole life ahead of her.

Third, we must act now because families, communities, and nations will all lose if girls’ potential continues to be squandered.

We recognize the challenges are great but that is not an excuse for inaction.

Adolescence is a tumultuous time, especially for the poorest and most marginalized girls. They need our particular attention because the period of adolescence can determine the course of the rest of their lives.

Without the right opportunities, these girls experience too much too soon. They leave school too early; they are married off and become pregnant before they are ready, and have children while they are children themselves, often at significant risks to their lives.

In shocking numbers, they experience violence and harmful practices, are infected by HIV at alarming rates, and join the labor force often under unsafe conditions.

But they can also have a very different life, like that of Marcia Yat, a 20 year-old Mayan girl from the poor, rural highlands of Guatemala.

Many young girls in her community were already married with children, and early in her adolescence Marcia, too, had to drop out from school and work long hours to support her family. Her odds were not good.

Then, through a Population Council programme supported by UNFPA, she was trained in leadership, life skills, health and community organizing.

She finished high school and studied to become a nurse. She started serving as a resource and mentor to other girls in her indigenous community.

Marcia told us:

“I have seen and felt how programmes that invest in indigenous girls and women can make a difference in our lives – because they are managed by us and take into account our realities: our multiple needs, the languages we speak and the barriers we face. To learn by doing has given us the opportunity to see and transform into alternative models of life – and this is true social change.”

Depending on the opportunities or choices girls have during adolescence, they can begin adulthood as empowered and active citizens, like Marcia, or they can be entrenched in poverty, neglected and voiceless.

These girls’ future, and their families’ future, hangs in the balance.

We must put girls first today to make a better tomorrow for everyone.

Thank you.

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