“We must use this time to listen to their experiences and learn what needs to change for them to feel safe, better equipped and more enabled to fulfil their potential. What we cannot afford to do is forget about girls. – Plan International UK

I identify as a woman; I am a single parent, and I am a proud mum to a 13-year-old girl.  So when it comes to matters affecting girls and young women, I take notice.  Today is International Day of the Girl.  Research carried out by Plan International UK, about the early impact on Girls’ rights caused by the coronavirus, contains some sobering facts. Facts that weigh heavily on my mind and on my heart.  1 in 5 of the girls researched had experienced public sexual harassment, 22% of girls that could afford sanitary products struggled to find them in the shops at the height of lockdown and the 11% that couldn’t afford previously named ‘luxury items’ resorted to makeshift products such as newspaper or socks.  Alarmingly, 1 in 5 young women between the ages of 18 and 19 could not access their usual form of contraception. These are not facts from some despot country, this was the reality of lockdown for girls and young women in the United Kingdom in 2020.

Personal safety was highlighted as a matter of huge concern to these girls.  Even though many of them were only going outside once a day to exercise during lockdown, they were still being cat-called or receiving sexual advances.  Of the girls researched 28% said that they felt less safe during this time, as there were fewer people around to help them if they were attacked or approached.  Many girls took to the digital world due to having time on their hands and limited places to go, but 40% of girls said that being in this space more frequently had negatively impacted on their mental health.  The digital world we inhabit, is not always a positive and liberating experience for girls.

Worry after worry springs from the pages of this crucial report.  Girls and young women who missed their friends, family members, being at school, scared of catching the virus, scared of people they loved dying from it.  Mental health dipping to an all time low for many of them.  The traditional gender role of ‘carer’ as a girl, never felt more keenly.   We read so much in the press about young men being at risk of completing suicide, yet suicide ideation and attempts are higher amongst adolescent girls. Rejection of referrals, or lack of access entirely into mental health services was a cause for concern before the pandemic, now it is a national emergency.

I think back to my career advice and choices when I left school at 16 with a handful of qualifications.  I was told with much enthusiasm that I could consider being a nurse or a secretary.  I asked the careers advisor which paid the most and duly headed off to secretarial college.  I lost count of how many times in my early career that I directly or indirectly experienced sexism and comments such as ‘is it your time of the month’, when I showed any vulnerability or uncertainty.  I have been called ‘soft’ many, many times regarding how I looked after my teams and their wellbeing.  As if kindness is a form of weakness and there is no place for it in the world of work, my gender traits and emotional intelligence frowned upon.  Being made to feel ‘less than’ by my male counterparts and sadly on occasion, female. 

Plan International UK has nine recommendations for the government.  Just nine.  Many of which should be a girl’s absolute right anyway and which are fundamental principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Things such as recognising the impact this pandemic is having on all children and protecting their rights and best interests (Article 3).  Enabling their participation (Article 12) and supporting their mental and sexual health (Article 24), reconfiguring our education system (Article 28 and 29) and above all else, keeping girls safe in public and online.  Shouldn’t every girl expect that from us at the very least?  The UK agreed to the UN’s comprehensive set of rights in 1992 did they not?  Who if not us, will hold them to account?

This week alone I have read about how the gender gap will not be consigned to the history books for almost another century.  I have read numerous articles and social media posts about how young people are to blame for the second wave of Covid-19.  And the government has signed a cheque for £60 million simply for coronavirus enforcement as we head into stricter measures and a tiered lockdown approach in areas that have many social and economic challenges already.  When we come out the other side of it, what will our girls be telling us then?  What support will be in place for them to thrive?  And more importantly when will the day come that we hear and value our girl’s voices? 

If you are a girl living in Trafford, Rochdale, Bradford or St Helens and are confused about your rights, or feel like no one is listening to you, you can contact our Children’s Rights helpline on 0300 303 4170.  If you live outside of these areas and need help, call us via our helpline and we will see if we can signpost you to the help you need.

You can find out more about the work of Plan International UK and the International Day of the Girl here: https://plan-uk.org/international-day-of-the-girl-2020 where you can sign up to support their ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign which will show your support for brave girls everywhere who are tackling issues that matter to them.  Happy International Day of the Girl 2020.