Across Asia-Pacific, girls are fighting for a better tomorrow

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Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace prize laureate Malala Yousafzai speaks during an event about the importance of education and women empowerment. Young women are often at the front of societal change. AFP

The Asia-Pacific region is increasingly a “Tale of Two Cities” for young women leaders working to increase gender equality. The situation for girls and young women in several countries is slipping backwards because of violence and discrimination. Disturbing headlines continue to come out of Myanmar and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, other countries continue to boldly move forward in pursuit of greater equality and opportunities for girls.

This year we have seen thousands of women political activists arrested, discriminated against and socially marginalised in the region. In Afghanistan and Myanmar, the situation may be even more dire, making many fear for the status and opportunities of girls and young women who grew up with the expectation of personal freedom. What is happening in many countries is a stark reminder that gender equality can only flourish when there are strong laws and enabling environments, allowing space for the respect of girls’ rights, voices and choices.

Thankfully those examples are not representative of the entire Asia-Pacific region, where the situation of girls is improving in many countries. Indexes in our report reveal that a generation of girl leaders are discovering new ways to lead social change.

This should come as no surprise. Think of Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg. Young women are often at the front of societal change. Compared to the Asia Girls’ Leadership Index from 2019, our findings indicate that in 12 countries, the climate for girls has improved. In four countries, it has declined, and in three countries, the opportunities for girls have remained static.

Our findings also show that despite many girls and women in the region facing different contextual challenges, they increasingly share similar experiences in the fight for gender equality. Across the region, an important story not captured by the media is a story of girls opposing when they are told they have no rights. It’s the story of an accelerating pushback against gender inequality that girls across the region have been waiting for.

Our report is geared at these two audiences: the girls and young women who are empowered by the lessons of other girls in the region, and the region’s policymakers, who we hope will hear girls speaking to them and become more responsive to the need for structural reforms. We publish these reports because we believe it is a girls’ right to grow up in environments free from discrimination and harassment. Through research and measurements on girls’ leadership opportunities, we want to demonstrate that when girls are allowed to thrive, they have the power to change the world.

At the same time, these changes aren’t happening fast enough. Girls and young women are often excluded from decision-making positions. Even in countries whose Girls’ Leadership Index scores have improved, governments still fail to promote and respect girls’ rights to participation. Many are failing to engage and consult girls and young women on the very policies and programmes that affect them most.

To rectify this dynamic, Plan International calls on countries throughout the region to invest in Adolescent Girls’ Development Frameworks. Such frameworks are a way of articulating the steps countries should take to ensure priority areas are identified, resources are invested correctly, and progress is measured. Without these investments, countries in the region will not be able to advance gender equality and fulfill their 2030 commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.

In cities across the region, numerous girl activists have been pursuing similar strategies and using similar digital tools when fighting for greater gender equality. The path toward empowerment is being led by girls forming broad and diverse coalitions, including boys and men, receptive government agencies, and established progressive civic leaders.

Social media channels, like Facebook and Twitter, and blogs are allowing young women to avoid silos and find their voices to mobilise and challenge traditional levers of state media control. Their activity has increased, not decreased, in the past few years and demonstrates how their voices can influence both the progress being made for gender equality and a country’s overall development.

Since we released our first report in 2020, many pundits in the region have seized on our findings to ask if the scores can predict the future for girls in the region. We prefer to see them as the opposite of predictions.

Through our report, we can witness the present opportunities, gaps and challenges. We can dissect them in detail, presenting girl leaders and policymakers a roadmap for creating the necessary enabling environment for a better-shared future.

In the end, our report exposes the simple truth that those countries advancing in our indexes are those that recognise the sensible choice of listening to girls’ voices. It is every girl’s right to be heard, and everybody’s gain when they are.

Bhagyashri Dengle is Plan International’s director for the Asia-Pacific region.