News / Canada

Shooting of 14-year-old activist mars first day of 'Girl Child' celebrations

October 11 was meant to be an international celebration of girls and their right to go to school—but the shooting of a 14-year-old girl who dared to demand an education in Pakistan has brought new urgency, and tragedy, to the cause.

The first-ever International Day of the Girl Child has been recognized by The United Nations for the first time, after of years of diplomatic work spearheaded by Canadians and the charity Plan Canada and its Because I am a Girl initiative.

“The celebration is now mixed with our collective sense of horror, that a young 14-year-old girl who simply wanted to go to school has been gunned down,” said Rosemary McCarney, president and CEO of Plan Canada. “It’s a terrible moment in the world that this young crusader, who was doing exactly what every girl in Canada knows is her right, has been harmed.”

A gunman shot fourteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai in the head and neck on a school bus in the Swat Valley Tuesday. The Taliban took credit for the attack, and promised to attack her again—because she is an outspoken advocate of girls' right to education.

Malala is remarkable and fearless young woman. She has spoken publicly and blogged with intelligence beyond her age since she was 11 years old. Her struggle for education, however, is not unique.

“Malala is a 14-year-old who just wanted to go to school. She has joined 75 million other girls around the world who are not in school today,” said McCarney. “In 2012, there’s no excuse. There’s no excuse for these girls not to be able to take their rightful place in schools around the world.”

The International Day of the Girl Child celebrations will go on. Landmarks, including the CN Tower, Niagara Falls, pyramids in Egypt and iconic buildings around the world, will be lit up in pink, and long-planned events—including a concert at Dundas Square in Toronto Thursday—will proceed, said McCarney.

It will be a celebration of Malala and all girls, she said.

“There are many other girls around the world—75 million others—who aren’t in school as well, for reasons of violence, because they’ve been married off, because they’ve been sold off into labour. For all kinds of reasons,” she said. “This is everyone’s problem. Not just the problem of one family and one country. This is all of our issue.”

To mark the International Day of the Girl Child, Plan International launched the Because I am a Girl initiative and is calling for girls to get a minimum of nine years of quality education.

Since 1999, girls have nearly achieved parity with boys in access to elementary school education—and the worst inequalities now persist only the poorest, most remote and rural pockets of the world, said McCarney.

One of the biggest impediments to girls completing their education is being forced into an early marriage, McCarney said. According to Plan, every year, 10 million girls are forced or coerced into marriage, which often leads to girls leaving school early, face increased likelihood of HIV/AIDS and an increased chance of death during an childbirth—still the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 to 19.

A changing world for girls

The world is changing for girls — more are going to school than ever.

In developing regions, 97 girls were enrolled in primary or secondary school for every 100 boys — an improvement over 1999, when 91 girls for every 100 boys in elementary schools and 88 girls for every 100 boys in high schools, according to Plan Canada.

“There’s still 75 million girls (of school age, under 16) missing from school,” said Rosemary McCarney, president and CEO of Plan Canada. “Of those, 39 million are girls missing from secondary school education.”

While Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, South-Eastern Asia, and the Caucasus in the region at the border of Europe and Asia have shown the most progress over the last 10 years, progress for girls’ education has lagged in most other parts of the developing world — particularly in Northern Africa, Oceania, Southern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, according to Plan.

What about the boys?

Girls alone can’t solve gender inequality — and the Because I am a Girl campaign is about them, too.

“It’s fundamental that boys are a part of this,” said Plan Canada CEO Rosemary McCarney. “We know that gender inequality doesn’t work for boys either, who are forced into very stereotypical, macho, self-perpetuating images of their role in life, to protect and defend girls instead of championing girls’ rights to be powerful.”

Plan Canada’s research found that men who stand up for gender equality can face difficulties in going against the prevailing norms in their countries and some worry about the lack of opportunities for boys as girls’ rights increase, according a 2011 report on Boys.

At the same time, Plan found boys and men who have embraced gender equality  benefited from the better relations and freedom that come with letting go of traditional, confining definitions of masculinity.

One new program that teaches boys to be men in Canada is Game On, run in schools by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada — and there is a big need for it, said BBBSC president Bruce MacDonald.

Through physical activity and the leadership of young men, the program teaches smart and healthy eating and living, and instills respect for socio-economic, ethno-cultural and racial diversity, said MacDonald.

“There needs to be an emphasis on both genders and making sure all kids get the potential to succeed,” he said.

With files from the Associated Press