First ever global policy on girls’ and young women’s activism

UN Human Rights Council’s landmark new policy document on girls’ and young women’s activism is an important step towards making sure that they are recognized as drivers of change. Moreover, that they have the space to safely, equally and meaningfully make their voices heard.

Girls and young women advocate on the front lines of movements for social and racial equality. They are calling for urgent action and demanding space at decision-making tables in their communities, countries and beyond. However, being a girl is often enough to be denied freedom of expression and an equal chance to participate in decision-making. Now, decision-makers are starting to take notice, but there is still a long way to go.   

The UN has just adopted its first ever global policy document on this topic. This year’s UN Human Rights Council resolution on discrimination against women and girls focused on this topic, highlighting the particular barriers that young women and girls face in their work and making recommendations to solve the obstacles. Clear steps must be taken to make sure that no one – including governments – prevents those ladies from exercising the right of participating in decision-making. 

Some highlights

  • Girls and young women lack the same opportunities as boys and young men to participate in decision-making, due to stereotypes and discrimination. 
  • Women and girls are among the most affected by violence and discrimination when it comes to their participation in decision-making. 
  • Education is critical for girls and young women to fully exercise their right to participate. 
  • More efforts need to be taken to ensure in particular that girls and young women with disabilities can participate on an equal basis. 

Some solutions are:

  1. Remove all barriers – social, religious, legal, etc. – to girls’ and young women’s participation, and in particular, remove discriminatory laws and policies that restrict girls’ and young women’s ability to exercise their civil and political rights. 
  2. Create an enabling environment for all of civil society, but especially “women’s and girls’ rights organizations, feminist groups, women and girl human rights defenders and girl- and youth-led organizations” (this could be for example through laws and policies, training of law enforcement officials and other ways).
  3. Adopt policies to facilitate girls and young women to create their own groups, organizations and networks. 
  4. Create safe spaces for girl and young women activists, both online and offline, and establish protection systems to safeguard them from discrimination, violence or harassment.
  5. Invest in making sure that girls and young women have the education and skills they need (literacy, digital skills, human rights education, etc.) to participate meaningfully.
Some challenges

The issue of children’s meaningful participation in decision-making remains extremely contentious at the international level. Many governments want to place many restrictions on the degree to which children – including girls – can and should participate. And they succeeded in doing this in part in this text, managing to include phrases like “in accordance with their age and maturity” to limit girls’ full participation in decision-making.

This sounds fine on paper, but is really a masked attempt to say that girls of a certain age don’t have the maturity to participate in decision-making. That restrictions should be placed on them. What became evident in these discussions is that we must continue to work to change the mentalities of decision-makers on child participation, ensuring they understand what it really means and how to enable it. 

The original version of the resolution had strong language on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), including on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). This led to heated debates, as many governments do not support girls’ SRHR. The good news is that the final text keeps the reference to CSE, but weakened much of the other language related to SRHR. There is still much work to be done to convince some governments that girls indeed have the right to decide what happens to their body (what we call “bodily autonomy”).  

Source: Joyce Brummelman, Plan International