International Day of the Girl: An opportunity to be inspired

By: Julie Reilly   |   CEO, Australian Women Donors Network

Sunday 11 October, 2020 marked International Day of the Girl, a day created by the United Nations to celebrate the achievements and potential of girls. This year’s theme My Voice, Our Equal Future is a rally cry for us all to listen to girls and hear what matters to them.

Image: UN Women

Reflecting on this, I’ve sought to hear the voices of girls in my own circle and what they would wish their leaders to hear. There’s no doubt that safety, particularly from sexual harassment and assault ranks highly, as does body image, concerns about positive inclusion of non-binary needs, anxiety about inaction on climate change and mental health more generally. These all featured in my small but vocal sample of what matters to girls.

In recognition of International Day of the Girl this year, Plan Australia surveyed girls about what matters to them and the campaign #freetobeonline is a result of listening to their voices. I encourage you to check it out and consider signing the petition calling on social media companies to act on cyber safety for girls.

I remember attending a luncheon hosted by Plan Australia to mark the inaugural International Day of the Girl in 2012 and can clearly recall the energy and optimism in the room. I’d taken up the CEO role at the Australian Women Donors Network earlier that year and was heartened by the United Nation’s move to highlight the needs and challenges girls face and promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights. Just two days earlier, on October 9th 2012, a young Pakistani schoolgirl called Malala Yousafzai had been shot by the Taliban for raising her voice in support of girls’ education and the world was only just waking up to her story.  I had two teenage girls myself at the time and was acutely aware of the relative privilege of living in Australia where education is a basic human right and sex discrimination has been outlawed since 1984. I was however also acutely aware of persistent structural barriers and limiting messages they faced every day in the media, as well as the more subtle cultural and social norms that would shape their future. 

The Global Picture

Image: The Noble Prize

It was clear then as it is now that girls face disproportionate gender-based discrimination and the shocking reality is that, in some parts of the world, this discrimination starts from the moment of birth.  The Asian Centre for Human Rights reports that 117 million girls demographically ‘go missing’ due to sex-selective abortions in countries where the birth of a girl often represents an ‘unaffordable economic burden’. 

For those who survive this most brutal form of discrimination many girls - 12 million annually - will be married before the age of eighteen, often having been excluded from even the most basic education on the basis of their gender. COVID-19 is driving up the number of child brides and World Vision is calling on us to be part of the solution.

Despite evidence demonstrating how central girls’ education is to poverty alleviation and development, gender disparities in education persist.

According to UNICEF, around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.

This represents not only a huge lost opportunity for development but a major opportunity to impact climate change. Paul Hawken’s Drawdown Project, which examines the most effective evidence-based actions to reduce global warming, identifies the combination of educating girls to the end of secondary school and access to reproductive health services, as the closest thing to a silver bullet in reducing global warming.

Progress for adolescent girls has not kept pace with the realities they face, and COVID-19 has reinforced many of these gaps. Speaking at the UN General Assembly last month Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai warned that as many as 20 million girls may never return to school even after the global COVID-19 crisis is over, describing the pandemic as ‘a striking setback to our collective goals.

Girls using their voice

Image: Plan International

I can think of no more compelling argument for girls’ voices being heard than the leadership and impact of Malala, speaking out and standing up for girls’ education, and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg calling on global leaders to take action on climate change. Women’s Agenda recently published a list of five young trailblazers leading on the global stage. You can read about them here; no doubt we’ll hear more from them in the future!

In 2020, we commemorate 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the global agenda for advancing the rights and empowerment of women and girls, everywhere. The UN’s Generation Equality was also launched in early 2020 as a multi-year, multi-partner campaign and movement for bold action on gender equality. A clear narrative and actions related to the needs and opportunities of adolescent girls and their solutions is central to the Generation Equality mission.

Philanthropic role models

One of the best parts of my job is connecting with passionate and generous philanthropists who are deeply committed to improving the lives of girls and women – people like Paul Wheelton AM KSJ whose Bali Children’s Foundation has evolved to focus exclusively on girl’s education, and MECCA Brands Founder, Jo Horgan, whose visionary M-Power program will support 10,000 girls to complete their education by 2025 through generous local and global partnerships with organisations including Skyline, Stars Foundation and the recent winner of the prestigious Yidan Prize for Educational Development, CAMFED. CAMFED’s Patron and Chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), The Hon Julia Gillard AC, reminds us that the 130 million girls currently missing out on school are among ‘the most marginalised and hardest to reach’.

Perhaps we can each try to imagine what they would say if we could hear their voices? Let’s all commit to listening to young women in our lives and taking action – large or small – to ensure we are moving to a more equal future for them.

The International Day of the Girl invites us all to think about what can we do, individually and collectively to ensure girls voices are heard and that they share in a more equal future? Let’s seize the opportunity to be inspired by what adolescent girls see as the change they want, the solutions- big and small - that they are leading and demanding across the globe.


Julie Reilly is the Chief Executive Officer of The Australian Women Donors Network, which advocates for greater investment in women and girls, and promotes the use of gender-sensitive principles in grantmaking.

Oct. 14, 2020

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