International Youth Day, observed on August 12, celebrates the contributions young people make toward societal change, especially on issues such as preventing conflict, protecting human rights, and promoting sustainable peace. For the Office of Global Women’s Issues, this day provides an opportunity to celebrate the specific contributions and potential of girls and young women around the world. Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17 for leading advocacy efforts around girls’ rights, namely their right to an education.
Payal Jangid of India won the World’s Children’s Prize at age 12 for leading her town’s Child Parliament, which she used to educate her community about issues that affect children, notably girls’ education, domestic violence, and child marriage. Malala and Payal both exemplify how young women have had an impact on their societies in groundbreaking ways. However, they did not do this alone. Both Malala and Payal pursued education as the key to advancing their full potential to become agents of change. Ensuring access to quality education and combating gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices that disproportionately disadvantage girls are critical components of girls’ empowerment.
Worldwide, more than 130 million girls and young women are out of school, and in far too many places, girls are more likely than boys to either drop out of or never begin school. The size of today’s global youth population, the largest in history, underscores the need to ensure the next generation of girls receives the skills and education so they can become productive members of society alongside men.
Girls’ education and literacy are linked to delays in marriage, lower rates of maternal deaths and HIV/AIDS, increased economic productivity, and an increased investment in families and communities.
Girls face unique barriers to quality education as well as staying and succeeding in school because of the persistence of harmful traditional practices in some countries and instances of gender-based violence that disproportionately hold young girls back. More than one in every 10 girls worldwide have experienced rape or other forced sexual acts. Around 650 million women have been victims of early and forced marriage, and more than 200 million girls have undergone female genital mutilation and cutting. These harmful practices are violations of girls’ rights and have devastating consequences for their health, education, and safety. Both early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation and cutting often cause girls to leave school. To help end these harmful practices, our diplomats and development experts from USAID around the world are diligently working with governments and civil society partners in high-prevalence countries.
While today we celebrate the incredible contributions of youth to societies around the globe, especially by girls and young women, we must also remember our responsibilities to ensure they are prepared to succeed. Ensuring access to quality education can prepare girls to become agents of change in their families and hometowns, and on the world stage. Doing so will allow more young women like Malala Yousafzai and Payal Jangid to have a meaningful impact on society and benefiting entire communities.
About the Author: Katie Galgano serves in the U.S. Department of State's Office of Global Women's Initiative.