Each year, on October 11, we celebrate International Day of the Girl, established to promote the rights and opportunities of girls and highlight the challenges girls around the world continue to face. Through the Let Girls Learn initiative, the White House is working with organizations like Girls Inc. to expand educational opportunities and reduce the barriers for girls to obtaining a quality education.
While many people perceive access to education as a challenge outside of the U.S., a host of barriers exist for girls living right here in the U.S., especially girls living in low-income communities.
Today, overly punitive school disciplinary policies create barriers to education for girls – particularly girls of colors – who are punished for their behaviors without consideration for their circumstances. These practices place girls at greater risk of leaving school, which increases their risk of being sexually exploited, and entering the juvenile justice system. Violence and trauma and harassment and bullying are all significant factors that affect school performance.
Additionally, pregnancy and parenting continue to be leading causes of school dropout among teen girls. Yet fewer than half of all high schools and only 20% of middle schools in the U.S. provide comprehensive sex education. Across the U.S., too many young women do not have access to information necessary to make informed decisions about their sexual health. Lack of education and empowerment can also lead to low self-esteem in girls and unhealthy relationships.
Unequal access to educational opportunities and resources presents yet another barrier to education. Schools with a high concentration of students of color and schools in high-poverty neighborhoods do not offer students the full range of math and science classes. Additionally, negatives stereotypes and expectations about girls’ math and science abilities undermine their performance and interest in STEM. Only 24% of STEM employees are women, and Latinas and African American women are doubly underrepresented, making up 6% of women in STEM careers collectively.
Girls Inc. provides girls with the resources and support to increase their love of learning, improve their performance in school, prepare for college, and explore non-traditional careers. We know that in order for girls to thrive, we must address every aspect of their development – their education, health, and sense of self. When that happens, girls build confidence and embrace positive decision making to take charge of their health and being, and live productive, fulfilling lives.
This past spring our middle school girls participated in a Let Girls Learn project, where they exchanged letters with girls in Burkina Faso. It was an eye-opening experience, one that awaken the girls with knowledge about other countries and cultures.
“Middle school can be a time when girls focus too much of themselves, how they look, sound or appear to others. Let Girls Learn taught the girls in our program about the obstacles that girls in Burkina Faso faced in trying to get an education. At the same time, it made the girls in both countries aware of how much they had in common. Girls got to connect with someone who was their age and maybe liked the same foods or sports that they did. But these girls did not have the educational opportunities that we often take for granted.” –Connie Hill, Girls Inc. of Central Alabama CEO
This month, as we turn our attention to girls’ rights and opportunities, let us also renew our commitment – individually and as a community – to do what we can to ensure girls have the opportunities and supports at all levels to pursue a meaningful education, and live productive and fulfilling lives.