A happy ending to the sad tale of gender inequality is in our hands
On a recent visit to Sierra Leone, I spent an afternoon chatting to Frederica in a cafe on a rooftop in Freetown. She was telling me about her dressmaking business, how it's expanding, how it's so successful she's about to hire another six people.
Her success was not easily achieved. As a girl, she'd always dreamt of running her own fashion and design business, but, in 1995, with Sierra Leone engulfed in civil war, she was forced to flee as a refugee to Nigeria.
She never lost sight of her dream, and when she was eventually able to return home, she took a chance, received some help from a local network and opened a dressmaking shop with just two sewing machines. After a lot of hard work, the business began to succeed.
Frederica's hopes and aspirations as a young girl in Sierra Leone were not so very different from the hopes and dreams of girls today in Ireland. That's the message of a new exhibition that opens in Dublin this evening.
It features images of girls from communities across Ireland and from Sierra Leone, ranging in age from a few months to 18. There are images from the bustling side streets of Freetown to the lush farms of Meath. Each girl has a story to tell of their hopes and aspirations, and the similarities are striking.
Where their stories differ, however, is in what future they can expect. In Sierra Leone, they face sexual discrimination, disparity of opportunity, and poverty.
For every success story, for every Frederica, there are countless thousands of girls for whom the barriers of inequality and poverty are insurmountable, barriers that are not faced by their counterparts in Ireland.
In too many parts of the world, girls – simply because they are girls – are second-class citizens. They suffer cultural and institutional discrimination, from within the family and society.
Without equal rights, they have no chance to access education, to grow up without being coerced into marriage, or to develop into independent women.
That's where Plan comes in. Its 'Because I am a Girl' campaign, the first of which I launched in Downing Street a few years ago, aims to address this inequality. It works to support millions of girls to get the education, skills and support they need, as well as to raise awareness in countries where girls don't face such gender discrimination.
I'm in Ireland today to launch Plan Ireland's sixth 'Because I am a Girl' campaign, with an exhibition to raise awareness here.
This unique 'Her Story' photo exhibition shines a light on girls, looking into their lives and revealing that, while opportunities may differ and aspirations vary, one thing remains: each girl has a story to tell – her story.
Globally, the statistics surrounding girls are startling.
Sixty-six-million girls of primary school age do not go to school; more than 2,500 girls under 18 are married every day as child brides; pregnancy remains the leading cause of death for girls between 15 and 19 in developing countries; and 90pc of child domestic workers are girls between 12 and 17 years old.
On Friday this week, we also mark the second International Day of the Girl, which recognises the unique challenges facing the one in five girls denied an education by the daily realities of poverty and the 150 million girls under 18 who have experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence.
Plan was the first major organisation to call for an International Day of the Girl, so it is uniquely placed to explain the day's significance and help bring focus to the widespread denial of basic rights to girls.
This year's theme is Adolescent Girls and Disasters, and in a report to be released tomorrow, Plan shows how adolescent girls suffer disproportionately in the fallout from disasters.
Following the earthquake in Haiti, for example, research in the Dominican Republic found that there has been an increase in sexual exploitation and rates of rape and HIV. The numbers of disasters are rising – in the 1970s there were 90 or so a year, but in the last decade there were almost 450.
Every disaster means an increased crisis for girls. Disasters impact more on girls – girls like Frederica, who had to flee a disaster zone, but who has shown, with assistance and training, what can be achieved.
Let's mark this year's International Day of the Girl by helping to increase understanding of the importance of gender equality in the developing world and making sure there are millions more Fredericas.