As Malala Yousafzai lay in a Pakistani hospital recovering from gunshot wounds, the United Nations on Thursday marked its first International Day of the Girl Child.
The U.N. event, planned long before Malala was shot this week, focused on an end to child marriage and emphasized the importance of educating girls, the cause that put Malala in the sights of a Taliban gunman.
“Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families.”
Ban urged all members of society, including governments, community and religious leaders and families -- especially men and boys -- to promote the rights of girls.
“Let us do our part to let girls be girls, not brides,” he said.
The Tuesday attack on Malala, who angered militants by speaking out against efforts to ban education for girls, appalled Pakistanis and again thrust the issue into the global spotlight. The 14-year-old, who was reportedly out of danger of dying from her wounds, was on a school bus when she was shot.
Girls are thwarted from going to school for a long and varied list of reasons, some of which also keep boys out of school. The obstacles include poverty, prejudice against women, early marriage and safety threats.
Less than a fifth of girls in Niger, for instance, are in school. In Mali, roughly a third attend classes. And in Senegal and Guinea, less than half are in school. Education rates are also dismal for Roma girls in eastern Europe; only 9% of Roma girls in the Slovak Republic go to high school, the group wrote.
The bulk of young people who are not in school are in South Asia and Africa, regions that also have glaring gender gaps, the report said. Rural girls are even less likely to go to school than urban ones, as girls are tasked with gathering firewood, finding water and childcare to help their families scrape by.
Other girls are kept out of school by marriage. UNICEF estimates a third of young women worldwide -- 70 million -- are married before they turn 18, including 23 million girls wed before the age of 15. Marrying young almost always ends schooling for girls, the United Nations said Thursday.
School fees and hidden costs block other girls from school. Others are turned away by lengthy treks on roads riddled with danger. And still others fear sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers or classmates, the report found. In some Francophone countries in West Africa, sexual coercion by teachers is so familiar that students coined the phrase ‘moyennes sexuellement transmissibles’ -- sexually transmitted grades.