Equipping girls on how to live and prosper

Interview with Anju Malhotra, principal adviser, Gender and Development, Programme Division, UNICEF


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | June 3, 2016 | Geneva

#UNICEF   #Women Empowerment   #Anju Malhotra  

The Women Deliver Conference of 2016 is one of the largest gatherings focusing on women’s and girls’ health, rights and general well-being to be held in a decade – though the conference is being held every two years since 2007.  More than 5,500 delegates – including policy makers, business leaders, health workers, activists and celebrities – from about 167 countries attended the four-day conference that began on May 16.

The attempt was to put women and girls at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were agreed upon by world leaders last year.

Some revealing statistics highlighting the female condition are as follows: One woman dies every two minutes from preventable deaths during pregnancy and childbirth-related complications, 200 million have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), a whopping 70 percent have experienced violence or sexual abuse, 15 million girls are child brides every year, about 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade, women and girls make up 98 percent of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
However, the conference comes at a time when the UN faces a major shortfall in funding for humanitarian and general women and girls-related issues as donors are slashing monies. There is a gap of $140 million this year for reducing maternal mortality and promoting family planning.

A major campaign called ‘Deliver for Good’ was also launched during the meeting. The global campaign applies a gender lens to the SDGs and promotes 12 critical investments in girls and women to power progress for all. “Girls and women carry more than babies. Or water. They carry families. They carry businesses. They carry potential. And when we invest in their health, rights, and well-being, it creates a positive ripple effect that lights up entire countries,” says the campaign.

“Women deliver – and so much more than babies,” Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen said at the conference.
The policy briefs at the conference included those about improving girls’ and women’s access to education and jobs, reducing the burden of unpaid care that falls within the purview of ‘women’s work’, boosting their digital and financial inclusion, cutting maternal mortality rates, etc. Annual GDP could increase by $18 billion across 144 countries if 600 million more women had access to the internet. The public have been invited to contribute to the campaign.

Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told the conference that gender equality is “no longer a side show”. “It’s not just a fight for women; it’s a fight for all of us – women and men. It’s a fight for a better and more prosperous world,” he said.
“Some say growth and prosperity are the best ways to ensure equal gender opportunities. I actually think it’s the other way round,” Rasmussen added.

Anju Malhotra, principal adviser, gender and development, at the UNICEF based in New York, who participated in the conference, spoke to Governance Now on why it is important to renew our focus on the girl child and adolescent girl, what policies have worked and what haven’t, particularly in the Indian context, and the involvement of women in conflicts, among other issues.

Is there any significance to the timing of the conference?

This time, the timing is basically because the focus of the conference is on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – it’s being held after the UN General Assembly adopted the SDG in September 2015. And the idea is that now we have targets, indicators sets, the next General Assembly will be in September [2016] so having this meeting in May gives us a lot of momentum for us to go to that General Assembly and say that women and girls have to be an important part of whatever we try to do. We are talking about it – we need to be acting on it.

When we speak of greater investment in the girl child, what kind of numbers are we talking about, both globally and in the context of India?

The numbers are huge. There are two ways to look at the girl child – there are, of course, girl children who are very young [from] 0-10 years of age. And frankly we don’t quite invest even in that in many places, especially in India. But still we know that we have invested in reducing child mortality, we have started sending both boys and girls to school, at least at the younger ages. It is the adolescent girl that we are now more concerned about; looking at 10-19 years of age. There are 600 million adolescent girls in the world. India alone has 250 million. So we are talking about very, very large numbers. So India has the largest bulk of adolescents in the world. And if we miss out on equipping these girls on how to live and prosper in the 21st century, India is never going to progress as a nation.

Do you think there is a better need for convergence between UN agencies? For instance, does UNICEF work with WHO on issues like female genital mutilation (FGM) and better provision of menstrual hygiene?

There is a lot of convergence between UN agencies already and, you are right, there should be more. WHO does not work on FGM. WHO works more on setting policy guidelines and procedures and standards for everybody in the world. So, for example, issues like what should be the standards for contraceptive delivery, what should be the standards for sexuality education, etc. UNICEF works much more on the ground. WHO is there more to help the government understand what on the health side standard practices should be. And the UN agencies work hand-in-hand. For example, child marriage, these are issues that UNICEF and UNFPA are both working on. Even [for] adolescent issues, reproductive health – all three agencies work together.

But is there enough synergy or scope for improvement?

There is definitely scope for improvement. We don’t always say the same things. We don’t always tell things as we should – so absolutely that’s true. But there is also definitely greater push to do so because, I think, the UN agencies realise that the needs are so large and the efforts required for adolescents, with so little being done that all of us need to work together.

Could you please unpack the Deliver for Goods campaign a bit for us?

I am not the best person to unpack that for you. The general idea is that women deliver more than just babies and how can we deliver for the good of women; the areas in which the international development community and governments can deliver, so there are specific thematic areas around which we can deliver for girls.

In the context of India, early marriages, despite the legal marriageable age being 18 for girls, are rampant. What kind of social policies have been effective in other parts of the world for countering early and child marriages? What are the ramifications of such marriages, also in terms of the national GDP?

We have some numbers, more on the ramification of marriages, more for girls not being in school. That has implications for GDP but that is also very closely related to early marriages because there is a very strong relation between girls not going to school and those getting married. So we know that girls who are in school are six times less likely to be married than girls who are not in school. That is the biggest social policy that one can put in place. And frankly, India in many ways has been a leader in working on delaying marriages. Perhaps, in the Indian context we think of ‘child marriage’ to be very small children getting married and we use the term ‘early marriage’ but in the UN parlance [of] Convention on the Rights of the Child considers anybody under 18 to be a child. Then the term ‘child marriage’ we have used to refer to any marriage below 18. 

To the extent that in India we already have a law [and] a very strong civil society that fights the issue of girls’ rights are very active in making sure that this decision has been on the table and also there have been a lot of programmes on the ground in Rajasthan, Bihar, and Jharkhand to try and to delay the age of marriage. The problem is that the programmes are very grassroots-oriented and they try to convince the communities, families to delay age at marriage and tend to deal with the small populations and none of them has gone to scale.

Though I shouldn’t say none of them because India is ahead of many other countries, at least, some of them are going to scale. For example, there is a programme in Maharashtra that is taking it to scale with the state government. If you look at African countries, many of them are still even passing laws, many of them are developing national action plans. 

India is ahead of the game. India has also tried cash transfers for families so they are not motivated to marry their daughters early. There are mixed reviews on that. It can be a very effective policy but sometimes we don’t implement it very effectively. So really the bottomline is, yes, we can raise awareness in communities, we can also do cash transfers to families for not marrying daughters early, we can really work with the media, especially having a lot of soap operas and messages, [and] commercials on TV which everybody now watches, to delay marriage. But the biggest thing we can do is to send girls to school and keep them there.

What are the changes that you can suggest for making schools more girl-friendly? Could you give us some concrete examples of local/national interventions that have made a difference on the ground?

A variety of different interventions work in different situations. And one of the things we are really advocating is that – one of the things we can do – not just try to change people’s thinking, try to change curriculum and things like that, we should start by improving services. When we say make schools girl-friendly we must make sure that schools are not constructed too far from home – that is a real problem for secondary schools because secondary schools are large and expensive and often they are far away. And, India has tried in some parts of the country to build residential schools which I don’t think, currently, the evidence is very convincing that they are necessarily the best bet because on the one hand, yes, it’s easier to get girls there, keep them there then so you don’t have to worry about transportation [and] anything bad happening to them on the way but it’s not clear that things don’t happen to them when they are in residential schools – they are not being sexually exploited and other things we don’t have the evidence on that. It’s also not clear if it’s a good thing for adolescent girls to be away from their families for extended periods of time, that this is a wise thing to do. So I think the jury is out on that type of intervention. 
On the other hand, interventions that are trying to improve transportation to school, make it safe, that’s very important, [and] family members accompanying girls. In Bihar, we have bicycles for girls, those are successful. Girls having mobile phones, they can call up parents if something happens. Obviously, for school girls, the biggest concern for parents is she will get somehow sexually violated and their safety is really, really important. So, in general, safety for girls and women, there is a huge issue, which for school-going kids needs to be very much front and centre. And second, issues in school themselves, we can make teachers much more attuned to making sure that girls are getting good education to the extent that teacher is not treating boys differently, girls are not being encouraged to getting certain subjects, that they are not getting leadership opportunities, that they are being asked to fulfil roles that are very traditional.

Another area that is very, very important for intervention is our culture because those are things that keep reinforcing the same old ideas. If those things change in school then they will change for the longer term. And then finally, there is the big question of water and sanitation and toilet for girls in school – those interventions, some of them are working but a lot of them need better implementation. Many times, toilets are constructed but there is no water or the cleaning of the toilet becomes the girl’s job or girls have toilets but they have no sanitation facilities or [sanitary] pads and they are too poor to buy them. There seems to be growing innovation in the private sector, develop products that are more girl-friendly, that are cheaper and easier for girls to buy. In fact, they [a private company] have built new kind of panties that are very resilient and meant to replace pads that would last for two years. Things should not just fall on women and girls and especially we should not build toilets without access to water. That is a very important aspect of not only making schools girl-friendly but also [friendly] for female teachers. You also end up with female teachers not teaching if they cannot use toilets.

Do you think the rate of participation of women in war – either as victims, suicide bombers and sex slaves, hostages or fighters as with ISIS and Boko Haram – is increasing?

Women and girls have always been weapons of war and victims of war. They take the brunt of it because of their sexuality – as it is, violence against women is bad but in conflict and war they are free game and one of the ways in which any side can dominate is by violating women and girls so that’s very, very common. You can go back centuries or go to Bangladesh’s war against Pakistan, you can look back in history and this is a very common situation. It is also true women and girls have been in combat and used as soldiers because it is considered, somehow, as it will be easier or less detected or because they are nationalistic and a political cause they want to be a part of. 
Another set of reasons why women and girls have also been at the brunt of it is because the responsibilities still remain very substantial because they are the ones who end up somehow making choices that children are fed and clothed, taken care of. They bear a very disproportionate burden of war because if a man doesn’t have water, he doesn’t have food, he doesn’t necessarily think that it’s a larger issue but for a woman, her children are starving or if she doesn’t have shelter or if she has to trade sex to get any kind of food. So I, frankly, don’t think the rates are higher because technology makes it so obvious – we have cell phones, we have internet, visual media – we have to make it more visible.


(The interview appears in the June 1-15, 2016 issue)



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