On October 11, global communities will mark the International Day of the Girl Child to celebrate girls’ rights and to recognize the achievements and shortcomings since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 in improving the lives of girls. While there is much to celebrate around the world and across Asia, girls still face complex challenges that limit their ability to access education, live a life free from violence, to delay marriage and pregnancy until adulthood, and to influence the critical decisions that affect their lives.
Early and forced marriage is one of many challenges facing girls globally. One in four girls are married before they turn 18. In East Asia and the Pacific, one in five girls marries before 18, while South Asia accounts for the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Over half of girls in South Asia (56%) will be married before they turn 18. Girls who are married as children tend to have less decision-making power within relationships and families, and face increased risks of domestic violence and higher rates of adolescent pregnancy. Adolescent girls are more likely to suffer life-threatening complications in pregnancy and childbirth than adult women. And when a girl marries, it often means the end of her education.
Education is critical to providing girls with the tools they need to become healthier and more educated women who are better prepared and able to participate in the formal labor market and earn more income, which in turn lifts families and communities out of poverty in Asia and around the world. There have been substantial advancements in primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment rates of girls and boys in recent years, as two-thirds of countries in the developing regions have achieved gender parity in primary education, but gaps still remain as girls continue to face unique challenges within education systems. An estimated 31 million girls of primary school age, and 32 million girls of secondary school age, were out of school in 2013, and girls who are out of school are substantially less likely to ever return to school, compared to boys.
In the Asia region, where income inequality is pervasive and different ethnicities and minority groups have varying levels of access to education, girls among the lowest 20 percent income quintile and minority groups tend to be least able to access and be retained in education. In Vietnam, progress has been made improving the quality of public education and increasing school enrollment rates. Parity has been reached in primary education, and while the gap in secondary school enrollment rates between girls and boys is narrowing, girls are still less likely to be enrolled in secondary education. Tuition fees, combined with the costs of books and other school materials, are considerable and prevent many adolescents – and especially adolescent girls – from graduating from secondary school.
Staying in school can unlock opportunities for a girl in Vietnam that she wouldn’t have access to otherwise – from obtaining higher-paying jobs to attending university and delaying marriage, and girls like 17-year-old Nhu are defying these odds.