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Highlighting the Harsh Realities Facing 1.1 Billion Girls

On the International Day of the Girl we highlight the actions of three extraordinary women who have championed female empowerment.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty, curb climate change and achieve gender equality. On the International Day of the Girl, VICE Impact revisits last month's inaugural Global Goals Awards—a ceremony to reward individuals, campaigns and initiatives that have demonstrated progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. For its first edition, the Global Goals Awards honored the actions of three women who have championed female empowerment.


Yusra Mardini - Olympic Swimmer (photo credit: Nate Griffin)

The first woman to be honored was Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee and olympian. Since April 2011, the Syrian civil war has sparked an unprecedentedmigrant crisis. Over the last five years hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Europe from their homeland. While neighboring countries welcomedmillions, many perished on their exodus along the Mediterranean coastline.

The 18-year-old Mardini, shared her harrowing tale of traveling from Syria to Berlin: "12 months ago, I fled my home and I could never have imagined to be here." A few months after this Yusra swam at the Rio Olympics under the banner of the refugee Olympic team: "Competing at the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a young girl but the war made me think it would never happen again."

Yusra has vowed to devote all her efforts towards raising awareness of the plight of refugees: "I want to change people's perceptions of what being a refugee is. For everyone to understand that it's not a choice to flee your homeland. Refugees are normal people who can achieve great things if they are given the opportunity."

Rebecca Gyumi - Founder of the Msichana Initiative (photo credit: Nate Griffin)

The second honoree of the evening was Rebecca Gyumi, a feminist activist and the founder of the Msichana Initiative. She has long been advancing women and girls' rights in her home country: "We have a strong patriarchal system in our nation where it is normal for girls to be married at a younger age than boys".


Almost one-third of women currently aged between 20 and 24 in developing countries were married before their 18th birthday, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Child brides tend to be confined to a more conventional role in the household and therefore deprived of a formal education. These girls often get pregnant shortly after marriage and face the risks of maternal mortality. Child marriage hastens 70,000 maternal deaths of girls under 19 annually.

The Eastern African country of Tanzania has one of the highest rates of child marriage. Last year, Gyumi filed a petition to the country's highest court to invalidate the 1971 Marriage Act that allowed girls to marry at 15 with parental consent and 14 with the permission of a court. She argued that the Marriage Act violated girls' rights to equality, dignity and access to education as granted by the constitution. She challenged the legal foundation of this law and blamed it for the perpetuation of gender disparities in Tanzania. Her lobbying efforts led to the repeal of the previous court decision. The legal marriage age is now 18.

Gyumi is cautiously optimistic about her legal victory's impact on customs and traditions, especially in rural areas. She knows that ending child marriage also requires poverty alleviation, education reform, and government intervention and warns against hostile reactions from conservative social movements: "Although a majority lauded our efforts, a minority frowned upon the perversion of traditional customs. I definitely don't think that changing the law alone will end child marriage."


However, Gyumi sees her victory as a leap ahead for Tanzania and other nations where this is a major issue: "This legal framework sets a solid foundation for campaigns and advocacy to proceed. This momentum and commitment to change child marriage will hopefully spread to other countries."

Dr Sara Saeed - Co-Founder of DoctHERS (photo credit: Nate Griffin)

The final honoree was Dr. Sara Saeed, a physician and one of the co-founders of DoctHers who is attempting to improve women's access to healthcare in Pakistan.

Launched in Pakistan, the social enterprise DoctHers matches qualified female doctors with women and girl patients in rural areas. The startup has established nine virtual clinics in impoverished communities, six of which are based in the slums of Karachi where millions live below the poverty line.

Saeed cites the difficult situation of Pakistani women as the primary motivation for launching her social startup initiative. She has spoken out continuously against what she believes are unequal economic opportunities that thwart progress in her country: "Education in Pakistan is not a tool for women to translate into a career. Culturally it is unacceptable for a girl to continue working after she turns 24". She also highlights the fact that enterprising female students study 10 to 15 years to acquire a medical degree without any real purpose, as they are rarely then permitted to work. "In Pakistan, there are only 9000 practicing specialist female doctors for a population of 108 million deprived of healthcare".

By empowering female physicians who are traditionally denied the right to practice medicine, this initiative has ramped up access to affordable healthcare in remote Pakistani communities. DoctHers seeks to expand to other Asian countries where marginalized and ostracized populations are also in dire need of medical support.

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