October 02, 2020

International Day of the Girl Child: Deirdre Mullan rsm

Every year on 11 October, the International Day of the Girl Child, UNICEF works with girls to amplify their voices and stand up for their rights.  This year, with the Covid-19 pandemic causing havoc across the globe, the commemoration is different.

On this day, we recall the Beijing Declaration of 25 years ago, when some 30,000 women and men from nearly 200 countries arrived in Beijing, China, for the Fourth World Conference on Women.  Determined to recognize the empowerment of women and girls everywhere, they were also invigorated by the move for bold action on gender equality, especially the focus on the needs of adolescent girls.  The conference culminated in the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most comprehensive policy agenda for the empowerment of women.

The Platform for Action remains the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing the rights, not only of women but also girls.  Now, nearly 25 years later, the Platform for Action remains a powerful foundation for assessing progress on gender equality.  It calls for a world in which every girl and woman can realize all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to attend and complete school, to choose when and whom she marries, and to earn equal pay for equal work.  The 2020 International Day of the Girl is a key activation moment for all of us to raise the diverse range of adolescent girls’ voices and their rights for an equal future.               

The Platform for Action specifically calls on the global community to:

  1. Eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls.
  2. Eliminate negative cultural attitudes and practices against girls.
  3. Promote and protect the rights of girls and increase awareness of their needs and potential.
  4. Eliminate discrimination against girls in education, skills development and training.
  5. Eliminate discrimination against girls in health and nutrition.
  6. Eliminate the economic exploitation of child labour and protect young girls at work.
  7. Eradicate violence against girls.
  8. Promote girls’ awareness of and participation in social, economic and political life.
  9. Strengthen the role of the family in improving the status of girls.

Since its inception, the International Day of the Girl has been a year-long effort to bring together partners and stakeholders to mark and evaluate progress on the Beijing Declaration, and to equip girls with the power, knowledge and space to continue to voice their passions and concerns.

The progress made since the Beijing Declaration is remarkable, but girls around the world – especially those living in rural areas, slums or humanitarian settings and those with disabilities – still need us to stand with them to achieve their full potential.

Each year, the International Day of the Girl provides an opportunity for girls to come together to celebrate progress, to reinforce their rights to a safe childhood; to education and skills – in short, their right to the future they want.

As 22-year-old Zulaykho Ermatova from Uzbekistan reminded us in 2019:

“Whatever life you choose, it’s up to you and it depends on your interests.  Share your ideas.  Get support from your peers, teachers and families.  Get things done.  Nobody can stop you if you believe in what you do and follow your dream.”

Following Beijing, women have pressed the agenda forward, leading global movements.  Today, these movements have expanded and many are led by and for adolescent girls, tackling issues like early child marriage, education inequality, gender-based violence, climate change, self-esteem and girls’ rights to enter places of worship or public spaces during menstruation.  Girls, including those who are part of our own Mercy Girl Effect movement, are proving that they are unscripted and unstoppable.  Their passion, rooted in the spirit of Catherine McAuley, believes that:

“the person who says that it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”[1]

Yes, in 25 years, we have seen more girls move from dreaming to achieving.  More girls today are attending and completing school; fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children; and more are gaining the skills they need to excel in the future world of work.

  • Girls are breaking the boundaries and barriers posed by stereotypes and exclusion, including those directed at children with disabilities and those living in marginalized communities.
  • As traditionally male-dominated structures topple across the world, the feminine is rising, carrying new wisdom and ways of behaving which emphasize relationship and inclusivity; and we are reclaiming a new space for all.
  • As entrepreneurs, innovators and initiators of global movements, girls are creating a world that is relevant for them and future generations.  Girls are questioning why they bear the brunt of household work, which starts when they are as young as five.  Domestic work increases as girls become adolescents and continues until many are either forced out of their homes for early marriages or they enter the world of work.

A new UNICEF report, Harnessing the Power of Data for Girls: Taking stock and looking ahead to 2030, outlines exactly how many hours girls do unpaid household work globally.  But it also includes other valuable data about the progress required to improve life for girls and reach international development goals.  While the work of UNICEF is ongoing, the march towards more progress has been halted.  The Covid-19 pandemic has stopped our world in its tracks!

Covid-19 is blind to power, wealth and authority.  It bypasses protocols and preys on the cracks in society, looking for weakness in our defences.  So, how has this pandemic impacted on our work with girls?

As of 31st August 2020, 1.54 billion children are out of school, including 743 million girls111 million of these girls are living in the world’s least developed countries, where economic vulnerability, crisis and instability already represent major barriers for girls’ education.  In these contexts, measures outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent the transmission of Covid-19, such as social distancing and frequent hand washing, are much more difficult to undertake and enforce.

Covid-19 spread from China to Korea, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Great Britain and the United States.  In all of these countries, it is possible to maintain social distance and to wash one’s hands regularly.  This is not possible for many of our brothers and sisters who live in slum conditions, in camps or refugee centres.  How can you stay two metres apart and regularly wash your hands with soap and water when you share a two-bedroom house with no running water?  As the virus spreads, many rich countries are providing some financial aid to their citizens who have been furloughed or who have lost their jobs.  Poor countries cannot do this and so far there is little sign that rich countries – so focused on their own domestic needs – will respond globally to the plight of poor people.  Girls in these countries are the ones most likely to suffer!  How do we know this?

From the Ebola, Zika and SARS experiences, we know that health emergencies can exacerbate existing gender inequalities.  Already, young women are reporting back on the disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 on girls’ education and livelihoods.  For many girls, schools are a lifeline, providing essential services such as nutrition and health information, as well as protection from exploitation and violence.

In Sierra Leone, studies show that the closure of schools in an effort to combat the Ebola outbreak made girls more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men.  In the event of school closures, girls often face an increased burden of care, risk of child marriage and early pregnancy, and a loss of essential sexual and reproductive health services as resources are diverted to the outbreak response.

Speaking to this point during a virtual meeting on 9 April 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:

“Limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades are in danger of being rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”[2]

The dire warning from Mr Guterres is laid out in a policy brief which details how the new disease is deepening pre-existing inequalities, which are in turn amplifying its impacts on the lives of women and girls.

“I urge governments to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from COVID-19.  That starts with women as leaders, with equal representation and decision-making power”.[3]

Covid-19: Consequences for the Girl Child

Covid-19 has been reported in practically every corner of the planet.  Over 700,000 have died and one person dies every 6 seconds, since the disease first emerged in China last December.[4]

While everyone is affected, the UN chief highlighted the pandemic’s devastating consequences for women and girls, which cross every sphere: from health and the economy, to security and social protection.  Forced lockdowns and movement restrictions also mean that women and girls suffering gender-based violence are now trapped at home with their abusers at a time when support services are disrupted or inaccessible.

Women and Girls at the Heart of the Response

As the Secretary-General stated, Covid-19 is not only a challenge to global health systems, but also a test of our human spirit.  “Gender equality and women and girls’ rights are essential to getting through this pandemic together, to recovering faster, and to building a better future for everyone,” he said.  The UN chief urged governments to put women and girls at the centre of their recovery efforts, including by making them leaders and giving them equal involvement in decision-making.  “Measures to protect and stimulate the economy, from cash transfers to credits and loans, must be targeted at women,” he stressed, adding, “unpaid care work must be recognized and valued as a vital contribution to the economy”.[5]

Girls and Water

The rapid spread of Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of hygiene measures and access to clean water.  However, 40 per cent of the world’s population, roughly 3 billion people, still lack the means to wash their hands with soap at home.  The United Nations has called it a “global hygiene crisis” that has also affected hospitals and health-care facilities in the developing world.  One in six of these facilities do not have the necessary hygienic facilities.  As a result, every tenth patient falls ill with an avoidable infection during treatment.  The containment of the Covid-19 pandemic is massively impaired by the lack of clean water and sanitary facilities.  In order to reduce the risk of new Covid-19 waves, and to prevent future pandemics, public infrastructure for water supply and sanitation needs to be expanded considerably, especially in poorer regions.

The Mercy Girl Effect (MGE) and Equal Rights for All Girls

One of the major focus points of the Mercy Girl Effect (MGE) has been to raise awareness of what is happening to girls across the globe.  Because of the support and leadership direction  of our Mercy Leaders in schools associated with the MGE, students have studied gender-based violence and how harmful practices violate girls’ rights.  In particular, MGE students have advocated for water stations and refillable water bottles in their respective schools.  Recognizing that water is a human rights issue, our students have lobbied and raised awareness of how girls are often forced to drop out of school owing to lack of sanitation.  Girls are the major water carriers in our world and spend two to three hours daily trekking for water, risking attack by men who do not want their water but their bodies.  A UNICEF survey of 5,000 schools in Nigeria showed that over half had no water supply and almost half had no sanitation facilities!

As well as being water carriers, girls suffer gender-based violence, which is one of the most pervasive violations of human rights across the world.  It occurs in various forms and does not discriminate according to race, religion, culture, class or country.  Predominantly experienced by women and girls, it is rooted in gender-based power imbalances and fuelled by many factors, including harmful gender norms and insufficient legal protections.  When girls and women experience gender-based violence, the impact is lifelong.  It increases their risk of HIV, unintended pregnancy, alcohol abuse, suicide and depression.

Harmful practices, such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage are a violation of girls’ human rights.  They rob girls of their childhood and compromise their options and opportunities throughout life.  Girls who marry before turning 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to become pregnant in adolescence.  In some regions, they are also more likely to experience domestic violence.  Child marriage can isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their physical and psychological well-being.  While ending child marriage is a must, mechanisms should also be set up to ensure that girls who are already married receive the services and support they need, including access to health services and education.

Such practices, which occur in a wide range of countries, are driven by complex interrelated factors, linked to deep-rooted cultural gender norms, insecurity and poverty.  Conflict and displacement heighten the risks and realities of gender-based violence and some harmful practices, such as child marriage.  As girls and women lose their support systems as well as their homes, and are placed in insecure environments and in new roles, their risk of violence increases.  The trafficking of girls, for example, tends to increase in crises, including conflict and post-conflict situations.  In 2016, girls accounted for about 23 per cent of detected trafficking victims globally, the majority of whom were trafficked for sexual exploitation.

In our effort to amplify girls’ voices across the globe and to ensure a future that is equal for all, students who are part of the Mercy Girl Effect are given awareness-raising training, encouraged to research, speak up and write about girls’ issues in their respective schools and communities.  The MGE is a journey which begins in each Mercy school with the story of Catherine McAuley, our first woman of Mercy, and culminates when our student leaders become ambassadors for change by becoming actively involved in advocacy at the local and global level.  MGE is a social change organization and while we cannot change the whole world, we can – and have – made a difference for many children by building small schools in Zambia, Cambodia and Sudan.  We have provided over one thousand scholarships, assisted feeding programmes in Lebanon and Panama, provided medical financial aid in Haiti and provided money for sanitary needs, school uniforms and food.  During 2020, as part of the “Great Green Wall” initiative we have cooperated in helping to plant a “wall” of drought-resistant trees (mostly Acacia) from West to East Africa – just under the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

Since its inception over 13 years ago to become a global agent of change, the Mercy Girl Effect has tried to amplify the stories of our Sisters across the globe and on this International Day of the Girl 2020, may each of us take to heart the words of Pope Francis when he reminds us:

“A sustainable social order is distinguished, among other things, by an ethic of reciprocity and balance at all levels of the human organization.  A relevant analogy is the human body: here, millions of cells collaborate to make human life possible.  It represents the highest expression of unity in diversity.  Within such a structure all are inextricably linked.”

And Indian poet Kamla Bhasin highlights graphically but so simply the vital importance of education for girls.


A father asks his daughter:
Study?  Why should you study?
I have sons aplenty who can study
Girl, why should you study?

The daughter tells her father:
Since you ask, here’s why I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.

Long denied this right, I must study
For my dreams to take flight, I must study
Knowledge brings new light, so I must study
For the battles I must fight, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To avoid destitution, I must study
To win independence, I must study
To fight frustration, I must study
To find inspiration, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To fight men’s violence, I must study
To end my silence, I must study
To challenge patriarchy I must study
To demolish all hierarchy, I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To mould a faith I can trust, I must study
To make laws that are just, I must study
To sweep centuries of dust, I must study
To challenge what I must, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To know right from wrong, I must study.
To find a voice that is strong, I must study
To write feminist songs I must study
To make a world where girls belong, I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study!

Kamla Bhasin

—Deirdre Mullan RSM, PhD

Coordinator – Mercy Girl Effect, an NGO in consultative status with UNICEF


[1] Chinese proverb.

[2] UN Secretary-General, A. Guterres, United Nations, 9 April 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Covid Tracker, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.

[5] United Nations Secretary-General, 9 April 2020.

Additional Resources

Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19? - Cami Anderson

Spotlight on gender, COVID-19 and the SDGs: Will the pandemic derail hard-won progress on gender equality?  -Authors/editor(s)Ginette Azcona, Antra Bhatt, Sara Davies, Sophie Harman, Julia Smith, and Clare Wenham

Guidelines for Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls During the COVID-19 Pandemic- Amnesty International

Deirdre Mullan rsm is a Sister of Mercy from Ireland who served as the executive director of Mercy Global Concern at the United Nations for more than 10 years. In 2011 she became the Director of The Partnership for Global Justice, a network of over 125 small congregations at the U.N. Her present ministry is working with UNICEF to look at ways in which they can partner with religious communities. During the height of unrest in Northern Ireland, Deirdre spent 25 years as a teacher and administrator in schools, where she saw firsthand what hate and misinformed ideologies can do to young minds. She has a doctorate degree in the Feminization of Poverty and has long been active in promoting the education of girls.

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