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Girl Rising: A Better Life Begins in School

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This is the third in a series of blogs by Gordon Brown written from WEF in Davos, looking at the growing global empowerment of young women. Stay up to date by signing up at www.educationenvoy.org.

If one thing was made clear by the scale of the recent anti-child slavery demonstration of 200,000 young people in the Burmese capital Rangoon, it is that regimes can repress for a time but they cannot maintain their repression indefinitely. The marches show that while children may disappear one by one into slavery, sold off by relatives or neighbours, becoming in effect invisible people - the victims' cries for help cannot be silenced forever, and eventually the truth will out.

The protests by girls planned for February across Africa and Asia show that while men may try to stereotype women as second-class citizens, truth will travel faster than lies -- and that girls are fighting back, connecting with other girls on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

So, in 2013, we are starting to move from decades of adult complacency, dominated by a false assumption that progress to end child exploitation -- whether it be child labour, forced marriage, or discrimination against girls -- was somehow inexorable and only a matter of time. The next stage is for girls, who have been the victims of the world's inaction for so long, to force the world to see that change will only happen if it is made to happen.

And what's happened so dramatically in India and Pakistan is also happening elsewhere as the power of girls takes on a new form. Even before the Indian rape, Nepal had been witnessing widespread demonstrations condemning violence against women. In Burma, a campaign against child trafficking brought 200,000 young people to that country's first open-air pop concert of modern times. And again in India, a march against child labour was led by 100 boys and girls who at ages as young as 8, 9 and 10 had been rescued from bonded labour.

But perhaps even more significant is the growth in Bangladesh of 'child marriage-free zones'. Here girls themselves declare that they will not be forced into marriage, and demand that, through their community, their right to say 'no' is upheld. They assert that in their area not just they themselves but all girls will be protected from early marriage against their will.

The new self-conscious assertion by girls of their collective rights is the shape of the year to come. Given that so many female rights in so many countries have been promised and yet have still to be established -- the right to a childhood free of marriage, the right to go to school, the right to be protected against violence -- then the Bangladeshi movement is one that is likely to spread to the rest of the continent.

Laws will have to change, to guarantee girls' rights in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (adopted in 1979). UNICEF has collaborated with the NGO Working Group for Girls, an international network of 400 non-governmental organisations, as well as many other civil society organisations, specialised agencies and professional media groups to push for girls' empowerment.

But the quickest and most effective advance we could secure immediately is to move girls out of exploitation and into education. Before Malala was shot she was planning to link her call for universal girls' education to a demand for an end to the child labour that imprisons girls in everything from cocoa farms to domestic service, and can hold them back from schooling. Thirty-two million girls do not even get to first grade in primary school. In 2013 we could target the off-track countries -- Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the conflict-affected countries of Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo -- and make big progress.

Of course, the issues will now be fought out on the streets and on the airwaves, but the hallmark of 2013 is already clearly visible: it is the year when a new form of female empowerment will not only change the way we see the world, but finally deliver rights that have been denied for too long -- and that starts with every girl's right to an education.