After almost 80 years of working with vulnerable children around the world, that is the stark conclusion we have made at Plan International UK.
Every day, girls are taken out of school, and all too often forced into work or marriage, where they risk isolation and abuse. Missing out on education can mark the end of a girl being able to choose her own future. But when parents are faced with the stark choice of which child they can afford to send to class each day, it’s the sons who are most frequently the winners.
We have plenty of evidence that these trends are happening. But what we don’t always understand with sufficient depth is - why? What are the attitudes and stereotypes that mean a girl can be treated so differently to her brothers?
In its mission to help the most vulnerable girls across the world, Plan International UK has spent the last ten years seeking to answer that question. In 2006 we began a unique research study. Real Choices, Real Lives followed 142 girls from nine countries across three continents, aiming to track this cohort of girls from birth to 18 in order to have a better understanding of the reality of their daily lives. All of these girls were born into poverty, but of course their life experiences would remain unique.
What we’ve learned is that the early years of a girl’s life are critical. It is during this period that the expectations of what they could, or should be, are shaped. That begins at home, and it begins with their parents.
Some parents in our study actively reject notions of difference based on gender - one mother from Togo said: “There is no difference [between boys and girls]. All are human and have the same rights and duties.”
But such an attitude is more an exception than it is a rule. A more typical observation was that of Diep from Vietnam, who noticed: “At home, my mother must do more work than my father.”
Our research finds that these discriminatory attitudes are deep-rooted. “Men, who are heads of families, must not fetch water,” says one mother in Benin.
“You want to know why? It’s just like the times of our forefathers. It would be shameful for him and his whole family. It’s our society which has defined that domestic chores should be done more by men than women.”
It is not therefore surprising that nearly nine in ten of the girls’ families reported that women and girls do most of the work at home. Of the 142 families we followed, just ten families reported equal sharing of chores, while in just three families are men and boys taking on more.
These early life experiences, choices and attitudes are not trivial. In fact, we believe that it is these discriminatory attitudes and gendered roles that lead a parent to choose to send a boy over a girl to school, that see a young girl’s place as in the home performing domestic chores, or to marry a girl off before she has had time to complete her education.
To improve girls’ lives, we must first recognise and understand the barriers and challenges that they face right from birth. Be under no illusion: achieving equality between boys and girls, men and women requires an overhaul in our thinking.