What are girls’ human rights? Why should we be concerned about them?

February 20, 2024

by Celestine Greenwood

Every girl is entitled to respect for their inherent dignity as a human being and for the protection, respect and fulfilment of their human rights: rights that are indivisible, interdependent and inalienable. Those rights, a wide panoply ranging from the right to life, the right to freedom from torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment through to rights such as the right to education and the right to work, are founded in the so-called “international bill of rights,” the combined triad of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights both adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966. Across six other major human rights treaties the rights and freedoms adumbrated in the triad are extrapolated to address various bases of discrimination (for example, on the basis of race or gender), various human rights issues (such as torture) and to protect various specific groups (for example persons with a disability). Most pertinently for ‘girls’ as a homogenous group, these include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women adopted in 1979 (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989 (CRC).

In practice the combined effects of the various rights and freedoms should mean that girls are not discriminated against in terms of accessing education (see the right to education is set out in Article 28 of CRC) or, as women, in the employment field (as set out at Article 11 of CEDAW). Further, the separate and combined effects of the child’s rights to “freedom from torture, or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” to be protected from “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse … while in the care of the parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has care of the child” and, the duty of a state which is a party to CRC to “take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children (as set out in Articles 37, 19 and 24 respectively of the Convention) should result in girls being protected from subjection to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

However, one look at news items covered in the British press and on BBC radio in the first week of this month illustrates exactly why we need to continue to be concerned specifically about girls and the ‘full realisation’ of their human rights.

From concerns about girls’ attitudes to Maths (namely that they believe they are inherently less able than boys), to the death of three teenagers in Sierra Leone as a result of being subjected to FGM, to the publication of a report that as working women they will have to work an average of 19 years more than their male colleagues in order to accrue the same pension pot, it is clear that at least some gender stereotypes about roles, traits and abilities persist, that girls continue to be subjected to gruesome assault in satisfaction of cultural norms and, that women continue to be disadvantaged in the workplace and financially by the burdens of having and caring for children and of undertaking the ‘carer’ role for other dependant family members.

Why, I ask in frustration and despair, in 2024 amid fourth-wave Feminism, should these stereotypes, cultural norms and discriminations continue to be so dominant? Haven’t we progressed beyond all that? Is the misogyny that we are seeing in everyday life, in the halls of power as illuminated in the national Covid inquiry and in politics here and in the United States some sort of backlash against the progress made by women and girls or a reassertion of male dominance?

Research undertaken by King’s College London’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and Policy Institute in partnership with Ipsos UK published on 1st February seems to underline these concerns. Indeed, that research suggests that only 36% of boys and men aged 16-29 think that feminism has done more good for society than harm and conversely, that 16% of them think it has been harmful. When asked whether efforts to provide equal opportunities for girls and women have gone far enough in the pursuit of equality there was no real difference between the views of the male generations surveyed with almost 40% of both the youngest (aged 16 to 29) and the oldest groups (age 60+) stating that enough had been done. Moreover, 25% of them stated the belief that it is harder to be a man than a woman today with that figure rising to 30% when asked about the position in 20 years’ time. Have we reached a situation where men and boys feel threatened, afraid?

Here the King’s College London survey might again help. Of those surveyed who had heard of the social media influencer, accused rapist and alleged misogynist, Andrew Tate, and his statements about men and women, 30% of boys and men aged 16 to 29 agreed that he raises important points about real threats to male identity and gender roles.

These concerns may have some justification. Statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Office of National Statistics show that fewer men than women now attend university (43% to 57%), and for a variety of factors, men are approximately three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

As Simone de Beauvoir noted, “Girls are weighed down by restrictions, boys with demands – two equally harmful disciplines.” We must strive to relieve both.

Doing so demands that we deconstruct gender stereotypes and norms and eradicate the discrimination girls face in various spheres of life so that they may reach their full potential. It also demands that when doing so we lift the normative demands and expectations that have been placed on men and boys to their detriment as well as to the restriction of women and girls. We need to recognise that this next societal change may be perceived as threatening or undermining for men and boys.

As we all progress together to the full realisation and enjoyment of our universal human rights we must remember that these changes need to be made at the individual level, in how we relate to each other, in the communities we inhabit just as much as at the wider public level. As Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States and lead architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 observed, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.”

Let’s ensure that all our children are able fully to enjoy their human rights in their families and homes, on the street and in the community, at school and at their places of work.