The U.S. Is Far From the Best Place in the World To Be a Girl

Girls face myriad challenges to growing up healthy, happy, and successful — and it has a lot to do with where they're born and raised. (Photo: Getty Images)
Girls face myriad challenges to growing up healthy, happy, and successful — and it has a lot to do with where they’re born and raised. (Photo: Getty Images)

International Day of the Girl, which takes place annually on October 11, was established to advocate for young girls and “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.” The U.S.-based arm of the movement is entirely youth-led and fights for “gender justice and youth rights.”

Part of this year’s initiative — the theme of which is Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: What Counts for Girls — includes a just-published analysis of issues that affect girls and female teens. The Girls’ Opportunity Index ranks 144 countries in order of how well girls fare in those countries — “their opportunity to control their own lives and to fulfill their potential.”

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister, set up a Facebook account for International Day of the Girl. (Photo: SophieGregoireTrudeau via Facebook)
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister, set up a Facebook account for International Day of the Girl. (Photo: SophieGregoireTrudeau via Facebook)

If you’re a girl, the best country to be born in and live in is Sweden, according to the index. Finland and Norway come in second and third, respectively. This is because Scandinavian countries — including Denmark, which also ranked high — have the highest proportion of female members of parliament (MPs) and are high-income countries, according the index. In a nutshell, Scandinavia has hit the sweet spot when it comes to providing successful futures for girls.

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Sadly, the United States ranks No. 32 on the list, behind countries such as Serbia, Kazakhstan, and Israel. “Not all rich countries are performing as well as they should,” the analysis states. “While the USA, the world’s biggest economy, ranks at number 8 in the HDI [UNDP’s Human Development Index, which assesses the development of a country based on not just economic growth but also people and their capabilities], it is at position 32 in our index, below Algeria and Kazakhstan.

“As well as women’s representation in parliament [Congress and Senate], the USA is let down by relatively high adolescent fertility and maternal mortality rates compared to other countries in its income group. Fourteen women died per 100,000 live births in the USA in 2015; a similar number to Uruguay and Lebanon, and far higher than the three deaths per 100,000 in Poland, Greece and Finland.”

The sobering index was compiled by Save the Children, an international group that works tirelessly to bring positive change to children in need through health and education programs, children’s rights advocacy, and poverty relief efforts. According to the Telegraph, it’s based on 2015 figures, which “ranked countries according to levels of schooling for girls, rates of child marriage, teen pregnancy, maternal deaths and the percentage of female MPs.” Only 19 percent of the members of Congress in the U.S. are women; that’s a relatively small number, especially when compared with Rwanda, where 64 percent of its MPs are female.

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Some of the least fortunate places to be a girl, according to the index, are Afghanistan, Yemen, India, and Somalia. “[Worldwide,] 15 million girls are married off every year before they reach the age of 18. In developing countries, one in three girls is married before the age of 18, and one in nine before they reach the age of 15,” according to the Telegraph. This directly affects teen pregnancy, maternal deaths, and high levels of girls dropping out of school.

“The worst places to be a girl are amongst the poorest in the world,” the index states. And the absolute worst? That unfortunate distinction goes to Niger, an independent state in Africa.

But there’s hope, according to the report released by the U.N. Despite dire conditions in many areas and odds that are stacked against them, the Girls’ Opportunity Index encourages girls to seize the control they have over their own lives and to work hard to achieve their potential. The forces working against girls, according to the U.N., “stem from deeply entrenched discriminatory norms as well as from economic and political barriers.”

The factors holding girls back include incidents of teen and adolescent pregnancy, maternal mortality due to inadequate postnatal health care, school competition, and, as stated, a lack of women in parliament — these women give girls a voice and ensure that more attention is given to issues that affect girls’ rights.

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Plus, women in parliament lead by example: The more there are now, the more there are likely to be in the future. This would perpetuate a positive cycle and hopefully lead to an upward trajectory for girls and women in the future.

The U.N. boils down the factors that lead to a bright future for girls to this three-prong strategy:

  • Fair finance, which “ensure[s] minimum financial security for all households to spur economic empowerment and prevent girls from dropping out of school or getting married due to poverty, conflict or disaster,” and “remove cost barriers to health, nutrition and education services — key sectors that affect girls’ resources and agency.”

  • Equal treatment, in other words, “guaranteeing the equal rights of all girls” to “challenge discriminatory laws, policies, norms and practices and building enabling environments to transform children’s lives” and “ensure all births are registered so that excluded girls are visible to policy-makers and can claim their equal rights, and ensure all marriages are registered for the realization of property rights.”

  • Accountability, by “guaranteeing that governance is inclusive, gender-sensitive, transparent and accountable to all girls by amplifying girls’ voices via meaningful opportunities for participation in civic action and policy and budget processes, with equitable access for the most excluded girls, and improving the quality, coverage and disaggregation of data to ensure that the extent and nature of exclusion that girls face is fully understood.”

While it might take quite a while and several generations to enact such change, the great thing is that the spotlight is placed squarely on the future of girls, and in a very high-profile way. Here’s to hoping time — and effort — heals all wounds when it comes to girls and their ability to grow into strong, powerful, healthy, happy women. America, we’re looking at you.

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