Elevating the Health of Girls, Worldwide
October 7, 2022
“Our time is now—our rights, our future”
This year commemorates the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl.
International Day of the Girl is celebrated on October 11 every year. Declared by the United Nations in 2012, the Day focuses on the need to address challenges that girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and fulfillment of their human rights. Gender equality ensures that girls have the right to be safe, educated, and healthy, not only during the critical developmental years, but also at every phase of life.
Gender inequality and discrimination faced by girls put their health and well-being at risk. These factors, along with greater barriers in access to health information and services than boys, increase the likelihood of girls experiencing violence, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and disruptions to education.
Ending Gender-Based Violence
Violence against women and girls starts early: Based on a recent large-scale review of violence against women prevalence studies across the globe, WHO found that nearly 1 in 4 adolescent girls who have had an intimate relationship have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime.
Violence against children and youth, particularly sexual violence against girls, is a global human rights and public health crisis. Experiencing violence in childhood and adolescence can profoundly impact emotional and physical health and social development.
Girls are at higher risk for experiencing gender-based violence (GBV) – including sexual violence and physical violence – than boys. GBV is any form of violence against an individual based on biological sex, gender identity, or expression, or being perceived to be a man, woman, boy, or girl based on socially defined expectations. GBV can include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse; threats; coercion; and freedom, including financial, taken away to make decisions about one’s own life. GBV is also rooted in gender-related power differences that are complex and operate at an individual, relational, and societal level.
GBV is also linked to economic insecurity. Those who live in chronic poverty may find themselves more likely to experience situations in which they must risk violence to access fundamental resources. For example, an adolescent girl may be forced to exchange sex for material resources to meet her basic needs. In addition, those who are financially insecure may be more likely to live in locations that are prone to conflict, have fewer support services, and offer weaker legal protections. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increases in levels of violence occurring in the home, including violence against children, and intimate partner violence. This has created challenges in maintaining support and care for those most in need.
Efforts to understand how often violence happens, where it occurs, and its impacts on the health and well-being of children and youth are a first step in preventing violence globally. High-quality, timely data delivers critical information to develop prevention strategies that help policymakers and practitioners make decisions as they select, adapt, and implement activities to prevent and respond to violence against children.
CDC and Together for Girls is a broad partnership between national governments, United Nations (UN) entities, and private sector organizations, that work at the intersection of violence against children and women to encourage prioritization, prevention, and response, with special attention to sexual violence against girls. Learn more about this network of partnerships and their work: Linking Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys to Coordinated and Effective Action: CDC and the Together for Girls Partnership.
Preventing HIV Infection
According to The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Global Commitments, Local Action Report, in sub-Saharan Africa, six out of seven new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15–19 years are among girls and women, and in 2021, girls accounted for more than 60 percent (63%) of all new HIV infections in this region. The root causes that give rise to the disproportionate burden of HIV among young women and girls are complex – poverty, access to education, violence, and harmful social/cultural norms. Because every girl is part of a larger community, it is important to reach out to and work with families and communities to build skills and support that help to protect girls against HIV.
CDC works on a number of fronts to make an impact in the fight against HIV among young women and girls. In 2014, as part of U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), CDC helped launch the DREAMS initiative, a multi-pronged approach to help adolescent girls and young women live Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe lives. Through this effort, PEPFAR and its implementing agencies aim to drive down HIV infections among girls ages 15-24 in high-burden geographic areas.
DREAMS public-private partnerships consist of a core package of evidence-based interventions that address the many overlapping vulnerabilities for adolescent girls. These interventions are being implemented in 13 countries: Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Eswatini, Haiti, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. DREAMS works across communities to empower young women and girls by expanding educational access and economic training, creating supportive and empowering environments to build skills that protect against HIV, and implementing programs that expand access to treatment for HIV-positive girls, women, and men.
Ensuring Menstrual Health and Hygiene
Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) is essential to the well-being and empowerment of girls, yet it presents significant challenges for girls in resource limited settings. Menstruation is a natural fact of life and a monthly occurrence for the 1.8 billion girls and non-binary persons of reproductive age. Yet millions of menstruators across the world are denied the right to manage their monthly menstrual cycle in a dignified and safe manner. While menstruation is a normal and healthy part of life for most girls, the experience can be constrained by cultural taboos and discriminatory social norms. Poor MHH exacerbates inequalities, negatively impacting girls’ education, health, and safety. The challenges girls and other menstruators face are more than a lack of basic supplies or infrastructure. However, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are fundamental to MHH. In many places globally, practicing personal hygiene may be limited due to a lack of access to necessities such as clean water and soap.
Girls often report missing school due to their period. When in school, students may struggle to manage menstruation if toilets lack the necessary facilities to enable them to wash and change when needed. Attending schools with functional single-sex toilets that provide a private place to wash and change, as well as a reliable supply of water and soap, will support girls to manage their periods with confidence and dignity.
While access to basic WASH services is essential for the health and well-being of people of all ages and genders, poor quality services disproportionately impact girls who often struggle to manage their menstrual hygiene while in school. Appropriate facilities are especially important in ensuring girls’ safe and healthy participation in school and have been associated with improved attendance.
Sustained action is needed to ensure girls, in all their diversity, can enjoy the right to optimal health. This starts by ensuring essential health and support services for all girls and prioritizing health needs on a global scale. Supporting girls’ pathway from education to employment requires more than learning opportunities, it requires keeping girls safe and healthy from all forms of violence, ensuring access to resources and information to mitigate HIV, and the ability to access adequate WASH services in and outside of school. Girls are also facing new and emerging barriers to their health and well-being due to the COVID-19 pandemic and must be placed at the center of global COVID-19 research and programmatic efforts.
In observance of International Day of the Girl, let’s make the commitment to improve girl-centered services that support quality and inclusive education, as well as access to physical and mental health resources. We can ensure the health and well-being of girls are prioritized at every phase of their lives by integrating gender equitable approaches to programming and strategies.
- Where We Work – Together For Girls
- INSPIRE Technical Package – WHO
- WHO Announced as a Global Leader of the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Ending Gender-Based Violence
- WHO Statement on Menstrual Health and Rights
- Health Promotion Materials | Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene | Healthy Water | CDC