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Gender equality is ‘impossible’ without better data on girls, new report says

Sixteen-year-old Avril is raising her daughter as a single mother in Nicaragua. In return for the shelter she is receiving from her family, she has to do all household chores and endure verbal assaults from her brother and step-father. (Credit: Plan International)

Millions of girls will continue to be at risk unless better statistics and data are gathered to understand the reality of their daily challenges, according to a report released today by child rights organization Plan International.

The report, called Counting the Invisible, makes the case that not only is there a huge gender data gap – a cause already championed by the likes of Melinda Gates – but the shocking lack of credible data on girls under the age of 18 makes them effectively invisible to governments, policymakers and the international community.

“Girls face very unique challenges, even more severe than women. Because of their age and because of their gender, they are extra-vulnerable,” said Davinder Kumar, Plan International’s global media manager, in an interview with Humanosphere.

“Those barriers and those lived realities of girls are not actually being captured in any kind of systematic way across the world. … It becomes very difficult to achieve real progress for girls unless we start tackling these issues.”

Counting the Invisible is the introduction to a series of annual reports to be released over the next 14 years that will attempt to fill the data gap on girls and track progress. The reports will run parallel with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were agreed upon in September 2015 by 193 countries to transform the world by 2030. Among the goals is gender equality.

“On paper, they have said that they will achieve gender equality, but the question we are raising is: How will you achieve that, because what you don’t know, how will you address?” said Kumar.

One example of missing data is on child motherhood. While teenage pregnancy is universally measured between the ages of 15 and 19, there are also an estimated 2 million girls who become mothers before 15 – just no documentation to back that up.

Similarly, data exist to track girls in school, but when they have to drop out due to pregnancy, safety concerns, poverty or other reasons, they fall off the grid. The report posits that collecting data on why girls leave school is crucial for knowing how to keep them in school.

In fact, the authors point out that of the 14 indicators used to measure the SDG of gender equality, only three are “regularly collected in most countries and have agreed statistical methodologies.”

“The goal can be very nicely articulated, but if we don’t know where we stand today, where we need to be and how far we need to go, it’s a little bit meaningless,” Zahra Sethna, editor of the report, told Humanosphere.

In addition to official statistics, Sethna says that more nuanced, qualitative data are necessary for a holistic picture. For example, numbers may craft a positive narrative about girls’ access to secondary education. But if interviews reveal that few of them feel safe traveling to school, then the number of girls with access to secondary school is of little practical value.

For this year’s report, Plan International interviewed 240 girls in Nicaragua and Zimbabwe. The stories are harrowing.

One 13-year-old girl in Zimbabwe, who the report calls “Jenny,” began engaging in survival sex last year when she was no longer able to afford school fees and had no job prospects. Her body is spattered with bruises from the physical and sexual violence she endures, and sometimes the men even refuse to pay.

“‘You are too young!’ they shout, then they don’t pay me,” Jenny told Plan International.

"Gloria" is 17, severely disabled and heavily pregnant after being raped (Credit: Plan International)

“Gloria” is 17, severely disabled and heavily pregnant after being raped (Credit: Plan International)

Another indigenous girl in Nicaragua who the report calls “Gloria” was orphaned at the age of 11 and is severely disabled, unable to move, eat, wash, or dress without assistance. Her stepfather and his wife cared for her until an uncle took her away one day. They had no right to keep her, he said, and Gloria’s opinion didn’t matter.

“It was hell,” she told Plan International. Her aunt would often neglect to feed and wash her and expected her to do household chores. One day while she was alone, a man blindfolded, raped and impregnated her. And although her life was shattered by the incident, her family and community did little to find her justice or healing.

Now back with her stepfather’s family, Gloria is due to give birth anytime. “I just want a better life for my child,” she said. “I don’t know how I will manage being a mother when I can’t even look after myself.”

Sethna points out two themes that came out of the qualitative data from Nicaragua and Zimbabwe. In Nicaragua, girls expressed a fear of violence, particularly sexual violence, in their homes, relationships and communities.

In Zimbabwe, girls overwhelmingly spoke about extreme poverty and a fear of being “idle” when they drop out of school, because a girl who is idle is a burden to her family and the community. Her only recourse is to get married and have children.

“Obviously, these are not new problems and these are not problems that no one knew about, but when you hear how they impact particular groups of people, it does bring a level of urgency,” said Sethna. “And adolescent girls are one group that often get forgotten.”

The first plan of action following this report is selecting the most critical and relevant indicators out of all 231 mapped out by the SDGs. The reports will also start with six countries representing Africa, Asia and Latin America and scale up from there. Eventually, they hope to look at middle-income and developed countries as well in order to paint a universal picture.

“It’s a very ambitious project,” Sethna acknowledged, but they have 14 years to do it in partnership with five other organizations: Data 2X, KPMG, the International Women’s Health Coalition, One Campaign and Women Deliver.

Ultimately, Sethna said the report is a “springboard for action” that will help – even pressure – governments to fulfill the promises they’ve made.

“It’s very hard to ignore something when you have the numbers staring at you in your face, just as it’s very easy to ignore something when you can’t see it. That’s where we want to use the power of data,” said Sethna. “Data is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”


About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email