In humanity’s efforts to empower children and create a world where every child is treated fairly, levelling the playing field between boys and girls is crucial.

Girls all over the word are systematically discriminated against, with those born into poverty and lacking the opportunities to improve their circumstances at the most risk. Exploitative child labour, female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage are all threats which girls in the Global South face, and dangers that can be eradicated if girls are empowered and opportunities equalised.

Terre des Hommes has released the seventh edition of The Condition of the Girl Child Worldwide – an annual report assessing the progress made in creating equal and just societies for girls across the globe.

The report shows that the longstanding risks which girls have faced in the past – such as child marriage – are still far too prevalent, but efforts to eradicate these scourges are having an impact. New dangers and opportunities which girls can experience through social media and access to the internet are also investigated.

According to the latest research and statistics, girls continue to be uniquely affected by child labour in different ways to boys. This is particularly obvious in the number of girls aged 15-17 who are forced to work in conditions detrimental to their health and wellbeing, such as in mineral mines.

While the number of boys in this age range carrying out hazardous work has decreased since 2012, the number of girls working in dangerous sectors has soared – rising from 8.8 million in 2012 to 13.6 million in 2016. The number of boys the same age working in dangerous conditions fell from 38.7 million to 23.5 million in the same period.

Significant progress has been made tackling FGM across the globe in the past 18 years, with the number of girls being subjected to this treatment dropping by 25 percent since 2000.

But millions of girls across the world are still endangered by the practice. Population growth is markedly increasing in poorer countries where FGM is still prevalent. Over 3.9 million girls were ‘cut’ in 2015 alone – a number which could reach a staggering 68 million in 2030 if current rates of population growth continue where FGM is practiced, and the scale of girls suffering this fate does not decrease significantly.

Similarly to the fight against FGM, progress has been made in most regions of the world to stop girls being forced to marry before they are 18. Around one in five girls today aged 20-24 worldwide were married before they were 18, down from one in four girls ten years ago.

Yet significant steps must be taken if the Sustainable Development Goal of ending child marriage completely by 2030 is to be met. The situation is particularly acute in Africa, where the modest 1.2-1.8 percent drop in child marriages is being offset by a fast growing population.

In 1990, 11 million young women in Africa had been forced to marry before the age of 18. That figure had risen to 17 million in 2015 despite the percentage decrease, and could reach 38 million by 2050 if efforts to eliminate child marriage on the continent are not significantly intensified.

While child labour, FGM and child marriage are familiar if considerable dangers faced by girls worldwide, new technologies are creating both new challenges and new opportunities.

Access to the internet is an empowering resource for girls across the world. Ensuring girls have sufficient digital skills is essential in achieving gender equality, and being able to surf the internet, send emails and use search engines are important skills which girls will need to find work.

But despite this, internet access has also made girls vulnerable to new dangers. Studies investigating the sexual abuse and exploitation of children online show that the vast majority of children victims are female. One study found that girls featured in 75 percent of 13,000 web pages containing sexually abusive content, with a study of over 2,000 videos finding that 96 percent of the child victims were female.

Major gains in advancing the rights, protection and opportunities of women and girls have been made since 2000. But if we are to make the dream of living in a world where girls enjoy exactly the same opportunities as boys, this must only be the beginning.

Photo: A girl with her bicycle in Bangladesh. ©Tdh / François Struzik