Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

Fact Sheet No. 12

The Girl Child

The girl child often faces discrimination from the earliest stages of life, through childhood and into adulthood. Her low status is reflected in the denial of fundamental needs and rights and in such harmful attitudes and practices as a preference for sons, early marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, incest, sexual exploitation, discrimination, less food and less access to education.

In recognition of the fact that in many countries, both developed and developing, the status of girls is significantly worse than that of boys, the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, identified the persistent discrimination against the girl child and the violation of her rights as one of the 12 critical areas of concern requiring urgent attention by governments and the international community.

During its forty-second session in 1998, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recommended further action to protect and empower the girl child.  Among the agreed conclusions of the session were measures to prevent and eradicate the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography, as well as actions to enable girls, including pregnant girls and teenage mothers, to continue their education.


Overall, girls' school attendance still lags severely behind that of boys. One of the major reasons why so many girls do not attend school is because of their workload, both within and outside the household. Daughters are often kept at home to help the family because the social and economic value of educating girls is not recognized. It is a little known fact that among the world's exploited child workers, girls outnumber boys.
Without access to education, girls are denied the knowledge and skills needed to advance their status. By educating girls, societies stand to gain economically.  In addition, educated mothers usually have smaller families, with healthier and better-educated children.

In recent years, many governments have reported action taken to create a positive environment for girls so that they, as citizens, can reach their fullest potential.

  • Through legislation, Nigeria prohibits the withdrawal of girls from school in order to ensure that they can continue and complete their education.
  • Zambia has begun to provide scholarships to girls.
  • Affirmative action programmes to encourage female students to take up science and technology and other non-traditional subjects have been undertaken by such countries as Austria, Burkina Faso, Dominica, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Portugal and Zambia.
  • Bhutan, the Czech Republic, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Portugal, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda, among others, have provided opportunities for vocational and professional training for girls.


In times of diminished food resources, girls and their mothers are often last to be fed, resulting in a diet low in calories and protein. An estimated 450 million adult women in developing countries are stunted as a result of childhood protein-energy malnutrition. Iodine and iron deficiencies also have significant consequences for pregnant women and their offspring.

There has been an alarming increase in the number of girls infected with the HIV virus.  Adolescent girls are at high risk of contracting HIV because their low social status often pressures them into situations where they are forced to have unprotected sexual intercourse with men.  There is an increased awareness of the need to provide information, guidance and services to adolescent girls with regard to sexually transmitted diseases, as well as reproductive and sexual health.

  • In Nicaragua, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has supported the development of a programme that focuses on adolescent reproductive health and reaching youth in rural populations through mobile clinics and theatre groups.
  • Education programmes on sex and reproductive health have been developed in the Czech Republic, Dominica, Indonesia, Latvia and the Russian Federation.
  • Programmes to educate young people about HIV/AIDS have been established in the Czech Republic, Grenada, Indonesia and Swaziland, among other countries.
  • Information campaigns and workshops to prevent teenage pregnancy have been launched in the Netherlands Antilles, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
  • Georgia, India, Mexico and Spain have undertaken advocacy efforts on health and nutrition aimed at girls and young women.

Violence Against Girls

Violence against girls as well as women remains a persistent problem that takes many forms, including sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, incest, prostitution, child pornography, trafficking, and harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation.

Statistics reveal the urgent need for action. According to the United Nations Population Fund, it is estimated that between 85 and 114 million women and girls, most of whom live in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, have undergone female genital mutilation. Trafficking in women and children, most often for commercial sexual exploitation, is estimated to generate up to $8 billion each year according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Since the Beijing Conference, examples of national action to eliminate violence against the girl child include:

  • Tanzania is one of ten countries where female genital mutilation is practiced widely that have enacted laws to criminalize the practice.  Penalties include fines and imprisonment. The other nine countries are: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Togo, Cote d'Ivoire and Egypt.
  • Canada, one of several states with immigrant or refugee populations that practice female genital mutilation, has enacted legislation to prohibit it.
  • The Philippines has established a 24-hour hotline to provide social services to children who are victims of child abuse.
  • Laws against the production of child pornography, as well as the criminalization of perpetrators, have been enacted in such countries as Italy, Japan, Mexico, Myanmar, the Philippines and Sweden.
  • Public advocacy campaigns for the elimination of violence against women and children have been organized in Dominica, Jamaica, Japan and Mexico, among others.

Equal Rights for Girls

Girls are often treated as inferior to boys, both within the home and by society-at-large.  They are socialized to put themselves last, which in turn undermines their self-esteem and their ability to reach their full potential as human beings.
When a girl is prevented from going to school or is too exhausted to pay attention in class because of her workload at home, she is being denied her right to education. When a girl carries the bulk of responsibility for the housework while her brother studies, plays or attends to his interests and hobbies, she is being discriminated against. To help promote girls' rights, a number of initiatives have been developed:

  • "Meena", a communication initiative coordinated by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), developed in cooperation with Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, uses a cartoon character called Meena as a role model for girls. The series provokes discussion on gender discrimination in childhood and touches on such issues as unfair treatment of girls in the family, and their lesser access to health and education services.
  • Albania, China, Cuba, Ghana, Italy, Moldova and Viet Nam are among the countries that have reported on new legislative initiatives and laws to protect the rights of the girl child.
  • Grenada, Italy, Nigeria and Singapore have established institutional mechanisms to promote the rights of children, including the girl child.
  • India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Nepal, Nigeria and Uganda are among those countries that have organized public advocacy campaigns to promote girls' rights.
  • Finland, Malaysia, Peru, the Philippines and Viet Nam have taken legal measures to prevent the exploitation of child labour.
  • Botswana, Greece, Mexico, Oman and Turkey have established programmes aimed at developing socialization skills among both boys and girls, as well as respect for women and their equal human rights.

This fact sheet is based on "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/L—May 2000