International Day of the Girl Child is celebrated globally on the 18th October as a day to come together and celebrate the power and potential of girls across the world. This year, to mark this day, we asked 2023 Diana Award recipient Sofia Scarlat to explain why this day is so important, focusing on the broader theme of digital empowerment.
International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC) is a crucial moment where we remember both the power and potential of girls across the globe, in all their diversity, as well as the challenges that they continue to face in pursuit of full ownership of that power and potential. It is a moment of reflection amid programming and collaboration efforts: a time for us to regroup, reassess, better understand new perspectives on our work and impact, and decide on the next steps together.
This year’s IDGC is particularly important from this standpoint. The theme, ‘Digital Generation. Our Generation” aims to provide a platform for the global community to better understand the disadvantages girls face online. It entails extensive investigation and discussion on how offline gender inequality, gender-based violence and harassment translate into online spaces, and how we are failing girls through lack of policy, regulations, and education.
The theme comes after a series of alarming reports published by international organisations and civil society, raising alarm bells around the state of girls’ safety online. According to the Web Foundation, founded by the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, half of young women and girls have experienced online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private photos and videos without permission. Another study carried out by Plan International, which surveyed fourteen thousand girls from across the globe, reaffirms this number and states that the abuses experienced by the girls forced them to exit social media and left them "traumatized." The Web Foundation also highlights that 87% of young women surveyed think the problem is getting worse.
Such statistics paint a very grim picture. On the internet, girls face discrimination and violence based on their gender and age, but also due to other intersecting identities and experiences such as being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, identifying as BIPOC, disabled, belonging to a religious minority, and so on.
According to UN Women, this digital violence that girls face can lead to alarming social, reproductive health, and psychological effects, such as “higher levels of anxiety, stress disorders, depression, trauma, panic attacks, loss of self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness in their ability to respond to the abuse.”
This form of violence further contributes to the marginalisation of already vulnerable communities which had initially come to the internet in search of safe spaces, community, connection, support, and information that is otherwise not available to them. Girls have shared testimonies of utilising the internet and online communities to learn more about themselves and to share their opinions – ultimately, they are coming to the internet to seek empowerment and to become more certain of themselves and their power in the world. However, the pursuit of strength and a voice, especially for girls who are not given a platform within their communities is quickly shut down by physical threats, body shaming, and sexual and racial harassment that await them online.
Particularly in a post-pandemic world, girls need to face no obstacles in being connected to the internet. Even though the WHO has declared the COVID-19 global health emergency as being officially over, the classroom, and our ways of learning and educating children, have been forever changed. More and more schooling methods rely on online platforms for various classes and skill-teaching. At the same time, the pandemic has put girls’ education at risk, making them more vulnerable to dropping out, child marriage, early pregnancy, exploitation for child labour, and GBV. UNESCO has estimated that 11 million girls may never return to school for these reasons.
The IDGC theme for this year is crucial, then, in this context, because it understands that the problem could not be more urgent. Girls need digital spaces to feel seen and heard, to access resources and information their community has stigmatised or refused to offer and, most pressingly, because they need to access their right to education. Providing them safe and equal access to the online world is not something that is up for debate – it should be at the forefront of our concerns as advocates. The only thing that we now need to discuss is how we are going to accomplish this for them, and how we are going to do it as quickly and sustainably as possible.
ACTIONS WE CAN TAKE_
If you would like to hear more from Sofia on the topic of Digital Empowerment, take a look at her panel discussion with the United Nations that took place earlier this year here.