Today is October 11, 2016, which marks the fifth time the world has celebrated the International Day of the Girl Child. Canada was proud to lead fellow UN members in declaring this Day five years ago, and we are just as proud to be marking it today with friends in Pakistan.
Why such focus on girls? We believe that no society can afford to lose the potential of half of its population. We need women and girls to participate fully in the social, economic and political life of their communities. Progress in gender equality is not only about rights, it is smart economics. The International Monetary Fund has recently concluded that closing Pakistan’s gender gap could boost the national gross domestic product by about 30 percent.
Pakistan’s immense resource of 100 million women and girls can contribute to building a safer, stronger, and more prosperous society for all. Girls can be powerful agents of change and need to be included as full participants in decisions affecting their lives. We need to ensure that they have opportunities to realise their potential and to help shape the future.
Think of the women who make a difference for this country – Naila Alam, Yasmeen Durrani, Ayesha Farooq, Naiza Khan, Saba Gul, Maria Toorpakai Wazir – to name just a few. The list goes on, and as you see it is not limited to woman astronauts, prime ministers, Nobel Prize winners, Oscar recipients, and high-ranking UN officials, though Pakistan is home to several of these. The International Day of the Girl Child encourages us to reflect on the contributions that each girl might make to Pakistan and the world if she is given the chance, just as the women whose names we recognise were given a chance.
With education, a girl gains the skills and opportunities to lift her and her family out of poverty and the knowledge and confidence to pursue the future she chooses. An educated Pakistani girl has a better chance of having a healthy life, including reduced risks of maternal death or exposure to infectious diseases.
Pakistan’s constitution recognises that girls should be in school until at least 16 years of age. Those who marry too young are kept from reaching their full potential, because incomplete education curtails their development and thus their ability to contribute to their families, communities and country.
Sexual exploitation and abuse are human rights violations with far-reaching impacts on girls and boys, impeding their education and damaging their psychological health. Such abuse can be found in countries around the world and we all must work together to combat it. Here in Pakistan, sexual assault sometimes leads to the atrocity of so-called ‘honour-killing’.
Canada is committed to putting gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at the heart of our foreign policy and development assistance. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been clear: “We need women and girls to succeed, because that’s how we build stronger, more resilient communities.” Just last month, Canada’s Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau made the equally important point at the UN that boys and men play a critical role in pursuing gender equality and must not be ignored.
What is Canada doing to turn rhetoric into reality for Pakistan’s girls? Canada has given $40 million to Unicef and the World Health Organization to help eradicate polio in Pakistan so that girls are no longer at risk from this terrible disease. Through Grand Challenges Canada, we are funding the Human Development Research Foundation and its Family Networks for Kids, which support Pakistani parents in recognising when and how to help their children cope with mental illness challenges.
We were very proud to support Kashf Foundation in producing the hit TV series ‘Rehaii’ and ‘Udaari’, which constructively shone a spotlight on girls’ role in society and on the perils of child abuse.
Canada’s innovative Debt for Education Conversion initiative is turning $132 million of Pakistan’s debt owed to Canada into spending on teacher training for primary public education, scholarships, and infrastructure upgrades at teacher-training institutions. We have helped train over 400,000 teachers across Pakistan so they can better educate the girls and boys of this country. Our extensive programming on women’s economic empowerment is helping a wide variety of Pakistani women become effective role models for their daughters and nieces.
Around the world, Canada works with a broad range of partners to ensure that the goals and targets on gender equality in the globally-agreed 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are achieved. The theme for the International Day of the Girl Child this year is ‘Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress’. In other words, improvements in the lives and rights of girls bring us closer to realising the Sustainable Development Goals to which our countries are committed.
Pakistan has indeed signed on to the 2030 Agenda. We commend all our partners in this country for their commitment to ensure that women and girls can contribute to Pakistan’s progress and benefit on an equal footing with men and boys.
How might you mark the International Day of the Girl Child 2016? If you know a girl who’s working to make gender equality a reality, inspire her to join Prime Minister Trudeau, the high commission of Canada, and thousands of others in Pakistan and around the world by sharing her story on social media using the hashtag #BecauseOfHer. Tell us about her with a status update, picture or video – our Twitter handle is CanHCPakistan, or find us on Facebook. If you aren’t online, encourage her to tell her story to someone who hasn’t heard it yet.
If there is a boy in your life, take a moment to reflect on how you might encourage him to become the kind of man who finds honour in treating women with respect. If there is a girl in your life, take a moment to think about how you might include her in discussions about your family, your community, and wider Pakistani society.
Canada believes that the empowerment of girls and the advancement of their human rights are critical to spreading peace, prosperity, and sustainable development around this planet we share. To cite Prime Minister Trudeau once again, it is time for the full and equal participation of women in our social, political and economic worlds to be the norm, not the exception.
The writer is the high commissioner of Canada in Pakistan.