Population Matters attended the launch of the 2016 annual report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in London on Thursday 20 October. Entitled ‘10’, the report focuses on the situation of 10-year-old girls across the world, identifying the age as one from which a path of opportunity, creativity and productivity can follow or one where ‘family, community and institutions may block her safe and healthy transition through adolescence into adulthood.’
There are now 60 million 10-year-old girls, 89 per cent of whom live in less developed regions of the world.
According to the report, more than half of all 10-year-olds live in countries with high levels of gender inequality and girls remain less likely than boys to be enrolled in school. Countries with the highest proportions of 10-year-olds are also likely to have higher levels of child labour.
UNFPA stresses the importance of recognising the distinctive needs of girls, for whom discrimination, sexual exploitation and the possibility of motherhood while they are themselves still children exacerbate many of the other problems they may face.
UNFPA calls for policies to support girls as they approach this crucial stage in their lives, including proper legal recognition, access to proper health care and education — which plays a direct role in empowering girls to marry and bear children later in life than they would otherwise do.
The report also makes a clear case for the provision of appropriate sex and relationships education (SRE). At the London launch event, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive Director of UNFPA, spoke of the challenges of persuading some governments to accept the need for SRE, but also of how such opposition could be overcome. He noted that the very words ‘sex education’ can appear threatening in some cultures and simply labelling SRE as ‘life skills education’ can help shift attitudes.
UNFPA’s mission is to deliver ‘a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.’ Its report repeatedly maintains that maximising opportunities for girls approaching puberty is not just good for them but benefits society as a whole. Education and the freedom to join the paid workforce turn them from dependents into producers, contributing to the economy and the wellbeing of their communities.
It bluntly states: ‘Investing in girls makes good financial sense. Conversely, failing to invest in them is nothing less than planned poverty.’