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HEATHER SHAPTER: Girls in global South need Canadian aid more than ever

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HEATHER SHAPTER

Whatever the election result, Canada must continue to invest in the futures of the world’s most vulnerable girls

The power of girls to change the world is once again taking centre stage. Greta Thunberg’s inspiring message to leaders to take action to address climate change echoes the efforts of other young women such as Malala Yousafzai, Emma Gonzalez and, closer to home, Autumn Peltier

Still, far too many girls, especially those in the global South, are in an uphill fight just to secure a brighter future for themselves. In too many places, gender inequality, violence and poverty overwhelm their best hopes. One key solution is to help them stay in school.   

While Canadians track opinion polls and debate details of taxation policy as part of the federal election, something as basic as ensuring the most vulnerable girls in the world have access to an education is put off for another day. 

Fine — but here is the expectation of those of us working and volunteering in the field of international co-operation: whatever the result on Oct. 21, Canada must do its share to invest in the futures of girls. In the South, where Crossroads International works, patriarchal societies, poverty and child marriage all conspire to keep girls out of school. This is especially true for girls seeking to advance their education beyond their childhood years.

Across Africa, the risk of sexual violence, child marriage and poverty keep girls out of school.

Take Tanzania, one of the most challenging places on Earth to be a girl. Sixty per cent of women live in extreme poverty. More than 30 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and the country has legislation allowing girls as young as 14 to be married. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2018 study by UNICEF and UNESCO found that girls are more likely to be out of school starting at 15 and increasingly as they get older.

Yet there is reason for hope. In 2016, Rebeca Gyumi challenged the constitutionality of child marriage in Tanzania, demanding the government give girls equal protection under the law. The High Court ruled marriage under the age of 18 was illegal and directed the government to raise the minimum age to 18 for both boys and girls within one year. The government has appealed.

Other issues obstruct girls’ access to school. While 91 per cent of girls in the world are enrolled in primary school, that number drops dramatically when measuring those enrolled in middle school. The reason: menstruation. Reusable sanitary pads are in enormous demand, particularly for the most vulnerable girls.

Crossroads helped launch a pilot project in eSwatini that we believe will help girls stay in school. Along with providing access to reusable sanitary pads, local women will provide training and awareness on menstrual hygiene.

We think we are on to something, and others agree.  This fall, public schools in Ontario joined schools across the country in providing free tampons and pads in all schools. A small, important measure to advance equality and end period poverty.

This good news story does not obscure broader realities. Canadians know we are not immune to the violent rhetoric being invoked to attack women, or to the rollbacks in rights we have seen in too many places recently around the world. We must continue making progress. A recent Nanos Research poll revealed that 81 per cent of Canadians agree we should be doing our fair share, along with other countries, to help those in the South.

With support from the government and thousands of Canadians, we are investing in girls in Burkina Faso, eSwatini, Ghana, Senegal, Togo and Tanzania and helping them assert their rights to bodily integrity, to choose whom and when they will marry, and to stay in school. It is working.

On occasions like International Day of the Girl, we celebrate successes and reflect on global threats to girls and our common experiences in the fight for equality.  Many Canadians understand we have a responsibility to act and appreciate that it is in our interest to do so. These facts should be included in the discourse of this election.

Heather Shapter is executive director of Crossroads International.

 

 

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