Girl Power | Sunday Observer
“Our time is now - our rights, our future”

Girl Power

16 October, 2022

Just as the internationally renowned activist and author Maya Angelou once said, all of us, or at least the majority of us, would love to see “a young girl going out and grabbing the world by the lapels!”

But the sad truth is that we still have a long way to go with nearly 1 in 4 girls aged 15–19 across the globe, having no access to education, employment or training, compared to 1 in 10 boys!   

The tenth anniversary of the International Day of the Girl Child (IDG) was celebrated worldwide on October 11, 2022 under the theme “Our time is now - our rights, our future” widely focusing on the need to address the challenges faced by girls and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. On December 19, 2011United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 declaring October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, to recognise girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face across the globe.


During the past ten years, there has been increased attention on issues related to girls in general from almost every sector ranging from governments, policy makers to the general public. As a result, there have been considerable positive changes for girls in terms of opportunities in the past decade with girls even getting involved in global movements such as “Fridays for the Future” for tackling climate change, and the “#MeToo movement” against sexual violence and harassment. 

“On the International Day of the Girl Child, let’s redouble our efforts to make sure girls everywhere are healthy, educated, and safe,” stated United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in his message issued to mark the Tenth Annual International Day of the Girl Child.

“When girls are supported to realise their human rights, they can reach their potential and create a better world for themselves, their communities, and societies. When girls are educated, they are more likely to lead healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives. When girls receive the right healthcare, they grow up with greater self-confidence and bodily autonomy. When girls understand their rights, including the right to live without the threat of violence, they are more likely to stay safe and report abuse,” the message said.

Drive positive change 

UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy in a brief interview with the Sunday Observer said that in her many years with the UN, she has countless times been inspired by the resolve and courage of girls to drive positive change in their communities. “Often, they do so against incredible odds, proving that when girls are given the skills and opportunities they need, everyone benefits—including women, boys, and men.” 

As she correctly pointed out, today, when Covid-19 and other crises have added to the challenges many girls around the world were already facing in access to education, physical and mental wellness, and even their right to be free from violence, it falls on us all, more than ever before, to redouble our efforts to preserve the hard-won gains of the past decade. 

“If we are serious about realising Agenda 2030 and building back better, we must make sure all girls everywhere are healthy, educated, and safe,” the UN Resident Coordinator raised her concern. 

Role played by UNICEF

 “The dream of every girl, as it should be, is to become a successful and productive citizen. For UNICEF, there is no greater vision than to help every girl achieve her dream. This requires investing more in girls, especially the most vulnerable across the country by providing greater access to quality education, skills development, and opportunities for adolescent girls to be at the forefront of decisions that impact their own lives”, UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka, Christian Skoog shared his views with the Sunday Observer.

UNICEF Sri Lanka works closely with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment in order to ensure a better tomorrow for every Sri Lankan child – to ensure that every child gets a better childhood, a better future, and a fair chance. 

According to UNICEF, Sri Lanka, investments in girls’ rights remain limited, and girls continue to confront myriad challenges to fulfilling their potential, made worse by concurrent crises of climate change, COVID-19, and other crises. Girls in South Asia continue to face unprecedented challenges to their education, physical and mental wellness, and the protections needed for a life without violence. 

 However, UNICEF Sri Lanka noted that Sri Lanka has made progress towards achieving gender equality and closing sustainable development gaps in recent years. 

Women’s literacy rates

“Women’s literacy rates exceed those of men – an estimated 91.7 percent of women are literate as compared to 90.8 percent of men. However, gaps remain in terms of achieving gender equality across the country. Sri Lanka dropped 14 places in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in 2021, ranking 116 out of 156 countries. This same decline is reflected in the Gender Inequality Index developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with Sri Lanka ranking among the lowest in South Asia.” 

“Despite dramatic reductions in indicators such as maternal mortality and infant mortality rates, deeply entrenched gender disparities in education, health, economic participation, and opportunity still persist. Although education rates for women are high, there is a gender gap in secondary and tertiary education completion rates - 63 percent for men compared to 50 percent for women,”

In addition, social bias, gender discrimination, and Gender Based Violence (GBV) rates are high, with 1 out of 3 women in Sri Lanka having experienced GBV. In Sri Lanka, an estimated 62 percent of homicidal fatalities of women are perpetrated by intimate partners, ex-partners, and family members (most often the intimate partner) and of those, an estimated 69 percent of such incidents go unreported.

“Some 75 percent of cases recorded were committed within the homes of the victim. An estimated 24.9 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Moreover, 18.8 percent of women who have been in a relationship have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime,” noted UNICEF Sri Lanka further.

Sri Lanka ranks 80th in the world

Where would you place Sri Lanka in terms of Girl child’s education level, social acceptance, and access to resources?, the Sunday Observer asked Senior Professor in Economics, University of Peradeniya, Dileni Gunawardena. 

“According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, Sri Lanka ranks 80th in the world in terms of gender equality in education, and 1st in the world in terms of secondary and tertiary education. In terms of the sex ratio and life expectancy, we have gender parity as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the girl child does not face challenges. According to the National Time Use survey 2017, a greater proportion of girls than boys aged 10-19 years participated in unpaid work and care work, and girls also spent more time in unpaid work than boys. So girls often have to balance doing household chores alongside their school work,” said Prof. Gunawardena

She added that according to a 2018 study by UNICEF there is a gender divide in online access between boys and girls – 68 percent of boys between the ages of 11-18 have online access compared to 33 percent of girls. This would have had a big impact on learning during the last three years when the dominant mode of education was through online teaching. This gender divide in online access also contributes to a gender divide in career aspirations – 25 percent of boys hoped to be employed as engineers compared with 9 percent of girls; 6 percent of boys hoped to be in the IT industry compared to 2 percent of girls. Also according to this report, most victims of cyberbullying are girls aged 13-18 years.


Prof. Gunawardena also spoke in detail about the existing gap between the number of female students who receive Higher Education and female representation in the Labour Market. 

 “Unlike many other countries, even in South Asia, Sri Lankan girls have greater educational attainment on average compared to boys of the same age. However, women’s labour force participation is much lower than men’s, 32 percent compared with 71 percent in the 2nd quarter of 2022. While there are many reasons for this, the gender division of labour in the household has a large part to play. Women are expected to play a larger role in rearing children and housework and caring for elders, while men are expected to be breadwinners,” she said. 

 As Prof.Gunawardena highlighted, many studies have shown that it takes tertiary education to break this pattern - women with secondary education are more likely to be out of the labour force, while tertiary education is a factor that increases the likelihood of female labour force participation. In addition to gender role attitudes, social norms about whether it is appropriate for women to work outside the home and engage with strangers also play a role in determining women’s labour force participation and are stronger in some communities and ethnic groups than others.

  “Norms and biased attitudes in the workplace can also play a role in whether women are hired, promoted or want to remain in the workplace, when the dominant ethic is of a boys’ club. When women do work, it is likely to be in segregated sectors like teaching and nursing (which still have the largest proportions of women employees) although other professions like lawyers and doctors are seeing increasing numbers of female graduates.

Among lower-educated women, stereotyping of jobs, as well as work conditions, make it difficult for women to engage in available jobs like garment work, which are looked down upon and often have poor working conditions. Gender discriminatory labour laws (see recent Advocate report) also contribute to low Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP.) Some recent revisions to gender discriminatory labour laws are to be commended,” she added.

A New Era for Girls

Today’s more than 1.1 billion girls are poised to take on the future. Every day, girls are breaking boundaries and barriers, tackling issues such as child marriage, education inequality, violence, climate justice, and inequitable access to healthcare. Girls are proving they are unstoppable, states A New Era for Girls: Taking stock of 25 years of progress, The UNICEF, Plan International and UN Women report.

The report highlights the need to prioritise actions with girls so that all girls including those most marginalised can move from dreaming to achieving. The report has identified three main areas.

Firstly, the global community must look to girls. Girls should be treated as rights holders and equal partners in the fight for gender equality. Solutions have to be developed with girls at the center. In short “No decision for girls, without girls.’ 

Secondly, more targeted investment in adolescent girls as a unique group with interlinked vulnerabilities, opportunities, and perspectives is needed. The need to develop adolescent girls’ education and skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution while putting an end to gender-based violence, child marriage, and female genital mutilation and enabling access to correct, timely, and accurate health information and services has been identified as key areas of concern. 

Thirdly, since accountability for commitments to girls cannot be achieved without stronger investment in data, it is vital to invest more in the production and intersectional analysis of high-quality, timely, sex- and age-disaggregated data for children and adolescents in areas where data are limited like gender-based violence, mental health and adolescent nutrition. 

What more needs to be done 

UNICEF, Sri Lanka said girls have shown that, given the resources and platform, they can act as agents of change in society. 

“Studies have also shown that investments in adolescent girls’ potential increases economic dividends and yield high returns to girls, their families, communities, and countries, every additional year of schooling for a girl increases her future earnings by up to twenty percent, investments in sexual and reproductive health and rights could reduce maternal deaths by two-thirds, and newborn deaths by more than three-quarters, eliminating anaemia could increase economic productivity by up to 17 percent.” 

The current socio-economic and political crisis generates significant risks to the safety and well-being of women and girls in Sri Lanka and threatens to further reduce their inclusion and participation in decision-making. Multi-sectoral interagency efforts are needed to ensure women and girls’ protection and prioritisation throughout all sectors of the humanitarian response and to facilitate their participation in designing solutions and in decision-making, UNICEF Sri Lanka noted further. 

Prof. Gunawardena finally emphasized that practical policy support that reduces the volume of unpaid work ( by improving technology that makes these tasks easier to perform,) and providing infrastructure ((For example electricity and piped water has helped greatly) are quite necessary. Also state or employer-provided or subsidised care services that make it possible for mothers to leave their children in childcare would see a change in FLFP. 

“Changing norms so that girls are given equal respect as boys which then carries on into adulthood and into the workplace is another important intervention that is easier to recommend than implement,” she added.