Because I am a girl

As the world marks the first International Day Of The Girl Child tomorrow, Plan International underscores the rights of girls to education and opportunity

Wipa (not her real name) has lived a much different life from other girls her age. Instead of going to class and enjoying the company of her peers, she dropped out of school when she reached fifth grade and began working on an orange plantation to support her family.

"I can still remember my last day at school. I cried a lot as I didn't want to leave," recalled Wipa. "I really wanted to continue my studies but my older sister got pregnant and the family earnings just weren't enough to make ends meet. She was the one who looked after me since I was only three so I needed to help her. It was time to be grateful to her."

A hilltribe girl living in Chiang Mai's Fang district, Wipa gets up every day at the break of dawn to prepare meals and care for her sister's son before heading to the orange farm not far from her rented house. After her parents broke up, Wipa's father started a new life; he found a new woman and moved away.

Worse still, Wipa's mother passed away when she was very young.

At the orange farm, the 15-year-old earns only about 100 to 150 baht per day, but she has no better job opportunity. Stateless, and therefore without identification documents, she is denied rights not just to education but also proper employment.

"Even though I was born in Thailand, I couldn't continue my education because I couldn't apply for a scholarship which is offered only for Thai citizens," she said. Without a scholarship, she cannot afford the school fees, the cost of transportation and even meals.

Wipa is among many other girls in Thailand who have missed the chance of proper education. In order to raise and highlight public awareness regarding the importance of girls' rights, 75-year-old child rights organisation Plan International has initiated a global campaign "Because I Am A Girl", and it complements the United Nations-designated first International Day Of The Girl Child tomorrow.

According to Plan International's CEO Nigel Chapman, the five-year campaign's focus is on ensuring that the world provides girls with basic rights and opportunities for employment.

''If you look at the big picture, girls are the largest discriminated group in the world. We want to push hard to bridge some of the gaps that exist and to move girls forward in the area of education, health and opportunity,'' explained Chapman.

The campaign's justification is twofold, said the CEO. First, there is the issue of justice _ that girls should not be treated as inferior and that they should have the same rights as men and boys. Second, and more importantly, is the subject of investment in girls.

''We know that when you invest in girls' education and opportunity, they put more of their earnings from such investment back into their families and communities than men do,'' said Chapman. ''It's a hard and inconvenient truth for men. But it's a fact that men usually use their capabilities often more for themselves and less for the family.

''So if you want to tackle poverty and raise your family out of poverty, you need to make sure that girls get every opportunity to do that. And this means education.'' Plan International's Thailand-based country director Maja Cubarrubia echoed the same viewpoint. When it comes to fighting poverty, investment in girls seems to be one of the smartest solutions.

''Invest in girls and it will turn a society around. Invest in girls and you will see the change,'' noted Cubarrubia. ''This is because an educated girl will make a better mother and better citizen. So it is important to give every girl the opportunity to learn gainfully and to have employable skills.''

Figures from a World Bank's study show that investment in girls provides 90% return on that investment compared to boys. While the boys tend to spend their earnings on toys, electronics and new cars, women channel their income back into the house. They buy food and other necessities for the family.

''Because I am a Girl'' campaign is based around three pillars: outreach activities, advocacy and fundraising. The first aspect is to make sure that the campaign really reaches its targets and assists underprivileged girls in terms of education, health and social issues. And the outreach activities must be gender sensitive, appropriate and relevant to girls' needs and girls' rights.

At the same time, the campaign advocates for changes both at the local and international level. Girls' education should be taken more seriously by those who have the power to deliver it. And lastly, fundraising activities will help the organisation to get more financial resources from donors, corporate and individual supporters who feel passionate about this issue.

''The level of gender inequality that exists in many parts of the world is still very deep. And the cultural attitudes that lead to it still run deep. The battle [against gender inequality] is not going to be won in five years. We have to align better with organisations at international level in order to put girls' education as the world's top priority,'' said Chapman.

Speaking of obstacles, particularly in terms of Thai girls, Cubarrubia is of the opinion that our society's perception towards this issue is perhaps the most challenging aspect.

''A lot of people in Bangkok may not know there are Thai girls who are not in the same situation as they are,'' commented Cubarrubia.

''Because on the surface, when people look at Thailand, they look at how progressive the country and its people are. So there is this perception that there is no problem. So the hardest thing is to make people in Bangkok, for example, realise you have fellow Thais who are not in the same situation as you are.''

''The challenge therefore is to make sure that the government sees there are sections of the population that are excluded.

''The other part of the equation is to make the population understand that they have rights and that it is within their right to stake a claim for such services from the government.''

When it comes to providing a better future for underprivileged Thai girls, it is paramount that girls must first be given the right opportunity. This is because opportunity is key to open the door to education and, certainly, to better quality of life.

And hopefully, Wipa would become one of the girls who are offered educational opportunities probably in the not-so-distant future.

''Education is very important for our life,'' commented Wipa. ''With education, we could get a good job and earn more money to support our families, even though it seems impossible for us.''

About the author

Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Muse Editor