Safety for Women and Girls: Protection Strategies for a Healthful World

03/04/2015 11:26 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015
Benis Arapovic via Getty Images

This International Women's Day, as we step back to marvel at the significant progress made by women and girls worldwide, we take note as well of the distance yet to travel before every woman and girl feels safe in this world -- safe enough simply to go to school, to gather water or firewood, to go to work before dawn. Safe enough that you know you can deliver your baby at a health facility without complications, or that you can take her there for her inoculations, without worrying about being exposed to the Ebola virus or to some other health hazard.

Safety is not linear; to ensure that a clinic can cope with a medical emergency such as the Ebola crisis and continue to handle routine care requires substantial strengthening of an entire health system. To do so includes fortifying both the supportive care net of safe hydration, safe blood, safe medicines, safe heating and cooking technologies, and training cadres of community health workers and public health nurses who, as frontline caregivers, can attend to their communities while remaining alert to instances of contaminated groundwater, disease or a high-risk pregnancy.

So easily come the words, "safe enough simply to go to school." But safety is not a simple thing, nor are we necessarily making progress. Just last month the United Nations Human Rights Council reported that, "attacks against girls accessing education persist and, alarmingly, appear in some countries to be occurring with increased regularly." This is as true in our own hemisphere as in Nigeria, Pakistan and other places that have sadly earned notoriety for such attacks: in Central America, the Human Rights Council reported, the incidence of threats, harassment and sexual violence inflicted by criminal gangs on schoolgirls has compelled many of them to give up on their dreams of an education.

The Ebola crisis has kept hundreds of thousands of adolescent girls out of school in the afflicted countries, interrupting their education and rendering them more vulnerable to rape and to other forms of abuse. And the Syrian war has forced roughly four million Syrians from their homes, at least half of them women, and half under 18, into foreign countries where gender protections can be weak at best and where the children have by now lost years of schooling. Each day these displaced girls and women must further endanger their and their families' lives by venturing out to collect the bits of wood, piping and plastic that they then burn indoors, to cook their food amid the toxic fumes.

Even in peaceful settings it is not a simple proposition to ensure that a woman or girl can retrieve water or wood without risking sexual assault. Doing so would require sufficient funding simply to clear overgrown pathways, move potable water points closer to households and champion such safe and fuel-efficient technologies as solar street lighting and clean cook stoves. These solutions, although involving multiple steps, are neither costly nor impossible; why are they not more widely embraced?

At a young women's forum in the crowded Nima settlement in Accra, Ghana, the Millennium Cities Initiative and our partner youth organization Voice in Community Empowerment confirmed that the dearth of streetlights was a chronic impediment to girls' education and to women's working lives. Working together, with very little money, MCI, VOiCE and the young women themselves organized the community to put up its own streetlights. Across the continent, in Kisumu, Kenya, women participating in WomenStrong's savings and loan groups are using their enhanced income to buy clean cook stoves, sparing them both the indoor pollution and the dangerous daily hunt for wood. These modest investments have been made by ordinary citizens, requiring neither rocket science, high diplomacy or big bucks to carry out.

Some changes do require higher-level leadership. The seemingly mundane routine of sending one's daughter off to school in the morning actually requires prescient public investments in safe transport, safe schoolyards and buildings, and in training caring, responsible educators committed to treating their students with the attention they would lavish on their own children. MCI has worked to convene all levels of government, NGOs and community-based organizations in adopting this integrated approach to solving such civic problems as getting all children safely to school and home.

Despite our knowing what needs to be done, and knowing it can be done affordably, tragedies continue to happen, every day. Members of our WomenStrong girls' clubs in Kisumu regularly report having undergone sexual attacks on their way home from school or while doing their families' evening shopping. This horrific reality cannot remain the status quo. WomenStrong and our partners have provided counseling and legal support, and for years MCI has helped the girls and mothers advocate for well-lit streets and kiosks, expanded bus routes and more frequent buses; the wider community now needs to join these girls and women in making their city streets safe.

We must change this dynamic, with smart investments designed to end this global disregard for women's and girls' safety. Engineers, nurses, teachers, political leaders, international donors: it's on you, in 2015, to keep women and girls safe. President and Mrs. Obama have stepped up, with their ambitious new "Let Girls Learn" initiative, which will surely increase the spotlight on this issue. Taking a cue from the First Lady, it's now on us women and girls, to become those engineers, nurses, teachers and politicians who can make this happen, and to speak up, this International Women's Day and every day, on behalf, simply, of safety for women and girls and communities, everywhere.