Author: 
Anne-Claire Blok
Hannah Pehle
Publication Date
February 7, 2018

"Plan International is rallying those in power, civil society organisations, and young activists - especially girls - to join the movement for girls' rights."

From Plan International, this report is an in-depth study into the status of girls in international law. It analyses existing references to girls and their rights in more than 1,300 international policy documents, covering a period of 87 years from 1930 to 2017. It sheds light on gaps and trends related to girls' rights in key aspects of human rights law, prompting the question: Does the international human rights framework adequately protect girls from discrimination? In exploring this question, the report makes recommendations to strengthen and advance girls' rights.

Plan International recognises that girls face discrimination in their communities due to the double burden of being both young and female. Here are just a few statistics: Half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16 years old; 41,000 girls are forced into marriage every day; and 32 million primary school-aged girls worldwide do not attend school. Where factors like poverty, ethnicity, or disability intersect with being a girl - and where gender stereotyping and unequal power structures prevail - girls' disadvantage is magnified. Yet too often, girls' issues are not tackled because they fall between the priority areas of women's and children's rights; research reveals they are being failed by the legal frameworks that are intended to protect them. Plan believes that by singling them out, using gender-specific language, and addressing their individual needs, it is possible to help girls defend their rights, live full lives, and thrive in their communities.

To identify girls' rights and determine how these are being addressed in international law, the report surveys legally binding and non-binding instruments, international and regional conventions, and negotiated and non-negotiated international soft law. The report audits the provisions where girls' rights are mentioned and where they aren't, and analyses when and why States opt out of particular provisions. Plan points out that the girl child's presence in international law overall is slim. Out of 71,023 paragraphs, only 5,638 (or 7.9%) explicitly mention the terms 'girl' and 'female child'. In contrast, 'women' and 'woman' are mentioned in 15,554 paragraphs (21.9%), and 'child' 15,648 times (22%). Some findings:

  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) form the cornerstone for protecting and promoting girls' rights in law. Yet, in the CRC, violations that typically affect boys (e.g., child soldiers) are covered in Article 38 but not those predominantly affecting girls (e.g., child marriage). CEDAW theoretically applies to women of all ages, but girls seldom feature within it as rights-bearing individuals: it only refers to girls once, in the context of education and female student drop-out rates. Other factors are making international conventions less effective for girls than originally hoped, such as ambiguous terminology including the CRC's "best interest of the child" principle.
  • International soft laws are quasi-legal instruments with no legally binding force. They act as authoritative standards, strengthening commitment to agreements, reaffirming international norms, and establishing a legal foundation for subsequent treaties. Analysis of soft law reveals the importance of the language used in securing advances for girls' rights; for instance, the failure to consistently use progressive language creates room for bargaining tactics during negotiations and results in weaker protection for girls. In addition, certain areas receive far less attention in soft law due to political sensitivities. Girls' reproductive and sexual rights are highly controversial issues compared to a girl's right to education, for instance. Consequently, a girl's right to decide what happens to her own body, and over whom to marry, to own property or inherit, is not consistently expressed throughout international law.

The report reveals a pattern of reservations to key treaties and conventions. Reservations are caveats to international agreements that allow States to choose not to be bound by a particular provision. Allowing States to have reservations makes it more likely that a convention will be ratified. But the reservations effectively then weaken attempts to set norms and undermine commitment to equal rights for girls. Plan International's analysis of reservations highlights clear resistance among several countries to core principles in CEDAW and CRC that are key to girls' rights.

Plan International offers the following recommendations to the international community:

  1. Address girls' double burden of gender- and age-based discrimination and commit to the realisation of girls' rights.
    • Differentiate girls' human rights from women's rights to acknowledge that girls face challenges that are different from those facing women.
    • Ensure the use of gender-specific language rather than gender-neutral language, if in reality girls are differently and disproportionately affected compared to boys.
  2. Take measures to bridge the gaps between women's and children's rights.
    • Appoint a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of the Girl.
    • Increase interaction between the CRC and CEDAW Committees, and strengthen the focus on girls, including by developing a joint General Comment/Recommendation that clearly outlines the human rights of girls.
    • Expand United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)'s and UN Women's focus on girls; differentiate them from "women" or "children"; and strengthen inter-agency cooperation to prioritise girls.
    • Strengthen the individual complaints procedures under CEDAW and CRC to ensure promotion, respect, fulfilment, and protection of girls' rights.
    • Introduce a specific sub-item to the UN General Assembly (GA) and Human Rights Council (HRC)'s agendas on girls' human rights, giving girls due attention and prominence, and encourage and enhance consistency and complementarity between GA and HRC resolutions.
    • Strengthen the systematic integration of a gender analysis, with specific reference to girls, in UN Special Procedures' mandates.
  3. Ensure that norms and frameworks for producing future international policy and agreements better reflect the challenges that girls face.
    • Better articulate girls' specific needs, particularly in relation to the challenges and discrimination they face, when developing new international norms.
    • Consider girls' intersecting identities and cultural context when developing international standards, to help prevent marginalisation.
    • Stop politicising issues relating to girls, and consistently use the strongest and most progressive agreed language available that enables the advancement of girls' rights.
    • Listen to girls to strengthen international norms and to enable their meaningful participation.
    • Train negotiators of international standards on girls' rights and needs.
  4. Urge States to comply with international standards that advance girls' rights.
    • Ratify all relevant instruments related to securing political, economic, social, and cultural rights for girls - especially CEDAW and CRC - and strengthen the implementation of such instruments at national and local levels, reporting in a timely way to treaty bodies on the progress of such implementation.
    • Withdraw all reservations to CEDAW, CRC, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), Beijing, and other international agreements that provide protections for girls.
    • Invest in age-, sex-, and gender-related disaggregated data to adequately reflect girls' realities in policies.

Plan International stresses that: "States should not only accept the girls' rights discourse and recognise the realisation of the rights of girls as an objective in itself, but also attach greater importance to the empowerment of girls throughout their life-cycle - starting during early childhood. States and communities alike should question children's socialisation into gender roles, and raise girls' self-esteem. Together these might comprise the stepping stones necessary to acknowledge a girl's lived reality,but also to rightfully celebrate her diversity, capabilities, and capacities."

The Girls' Rights Platform is the result of this in-depth study of the status of girls in international law. It is a searchable database of more than 1,400 international policy documents shedding light on gaps in the law relating to girls. In addition, there are training tools for girls' rights advocates and negotiators, as well as a United Nations (UN) debate tracker to hold states to account on their promises. The platform aims to increase the visibility of girls' rights, to be a resource for advocates and lawmakers alike.

Source: 

Plan International February 2018 newsletter; and Plan International website and 7 reasons the world needs the Girls' Rights Platform - all accessed on February 7 2018. Image caption/credit: "Girls learn at Digital Learning Centre in New Delhi, India", Plan International / Parav