We must listen to and support the girls like Malala


By Dr. Emma Fulu, Technical Lead, What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme

Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside her co-winner, the Indian children’s right activist Kailash Satyarthi.Today marks the International Day of the Girl Child, and Malala is a girl.

On this day that commemorates the adoption of the UN Resolution (66/170) – see the Executive Director of UN Women’s speech here – which recognises the specific barriers that girls around the world face that inhibit their ability to realise their potential to act in and shape the world around them, Malala is a perfect example for us. She is a girl, yes. But she is not helpless. She is a survivor, not ours to save. She is her own advocate.

Girls globally need our support, and on this day we must ask ourselves what can we do – in our relationships, families, schools, communities and organisations – to help change the world that inhibits young women. But we must also listen because girls are not voiceless and not invisible, they are the force for positive change.

The sad experience that brought Malala to the world’s attention was one of extreme violence, because of her gender, and because she was standing up for others of her gender. Sadly the experience, or constant possibility of violence shapes all womens’ sense of space and place in the world.

Globally 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, many of whom are girls and young women. Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16. Young women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violations during armed conflict, including rape, genital mutilation, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery and enforced prostitution. For women who do not experience violence themselves, they will still grow up in a world that teaches them that they have fewer rights, that they are vulnerable, and that they must take on the responsibility to not dress, talk, walk or act in any way that might put them at risk.

But what if that violence did not occur? What if the girls of the world could grow up with an assumption that they were safe, and free to participate in the world without any fear? How would things change if more girls went on to represent their communities’ needs in political systems? What economic progress would we see if the millions of girls worldwide were able to grow up healthily, able to complete school and fully participate in society? And what could we do with the trillions of dollars that gets spent annually on responding to the health and social costs of violence against women and girls?

It is not a world that only has to be imagined, it is a world that people are actively working to create. More and more people, organisations and governments are actively developing and implementing policies and programmes to address the underlying causes of violence. They are working to change the way boys and men are taught to express their masculinity through force, to support children who have experienced violence to make other choices for their futures, and to promote women’s empowerment in every sphere of life.

I have been working in this field for over a decade and most of my friends and colleagues for many more years that that. We have seen incremental changes and examples of success. But at this historic moment in time, there is a buzz and a sense of real excitement that we have reached a tipping point that has an unparalleled possibility to change the size of the problem. The issue of violence against women and girls has become highly visible in the mainstream media, people are talking about it openly in public spaces and governments have put it on the top of their agendas. In November of last year, DFID launched the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls Global Programme, a £25 million global research and innovation programme to build our knowledge and support programmes to stop violence against women and girls from occurring.

It is not just the size of this programme – one of the biggest ever investments to try to better understand and respond to this problem – that marks it as a tipping point. It is also that the programme has received such support and interest from a vast range of researchers, activist, community organisations, policymakers and decision makers. At the launch of the Global Programme, at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, hoards of people crowded around the entrance trying to get into the already packed auditorium and speakers had to be set up outside to accommodate the level of interest from people who were willing to stand to learn more about this flagship programme.

There has been a shift. People have recognised that we must change the way we see and address the problem of violence against women and girls. While we continue to respond to the problem and support survivors, we must actively work to reduce the size of the problem to start with. I am truly excited to be a part of this programme that is supporting innovative violence prevention programmes and conducting cutting-edge research to considerably advance our understanding of what works to prevent violence.

I genuinely believe that this is a major step towards creating the type of world where all girls are able to grow up safe, respected and empowered.