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Gender Discrimination: Inequality Starts in Childhood

Every girl and boy deserves an equal chance to survive and thrive. As the leading expert on childhood, Save the Children has been championing equal rights for every child for over 100 years – in fact, we invented the concept. Today, we are the leading champion for the human rights of the world’s 2.2 billion girls and boys.

Yet, gender discrimination, starting in childhood, continues to rob children of their childhoods and limit their chances – disproportionately affecting the world’s girls. A girl is far more likely to be denied her rights, kept from school, forced to marry and subjected to violence – her voice undervalued, if it’s heard at all. This assault on childhood also deprives nations of the energy and talent they need to progress.

At the current rate of change, it will take over 200 years[1] to achieve gender equality, and that’s just in the U.S. This is unacceptable. Together, we can create a more equal world, right from the start. Make a one-time donation to the Children's Emergency Fund or join Team Tomorrow to connect with the causes you care about - like inequality- through your monthly donation.

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In Nepal, a girl stands outside in a rural farm landscape.

What is gender discrimination?

Gender discrimination means any exclusion or restriction made on the basis of gender that creates barriers for girls, boys, women and/or men in recognizing, enjoying or exercising their full and equal human rights.

What is gender inequality?

Gender inequality is discrimination on the basis of sex or gender causing one sex or gender to be routinely privileged or prioritized over another.

Gender equality is a fundamental human right and that right is violated by gender-based discrimination. Gender disparity starts in childhood and is right now limiting the lifelong potential of children around the world – disproportionately affecting girls.

Around the world, while contexts and gender roles vary from place to place, we can see that gender inequalities occur everywhere; and at every stage of life, beginning with childhood or even before birth. 

At Save the Children, we put gender equality at the heart of everything we do. Our vision is a world in which all people – girls, boys, women and men – have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities, regardless of gender norms, identities or expressions. A world where everyone is equally recognized, respected and valued.



Is gender discrimination against the law?

Gender discrimination is prohibited under almost every human rights treaty. This includes international laws providing for equal gender rights between men and women, as well as those specifically dedicated to the realization of women’s rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women[2] – considered the international bill of rights for women.

Federal, state and local laws protect individuals from gender discrimination and gender inequality in the United States. Additionally, it is recognized in both law and policy that promoting gender equality is critical to achieving foreign policy objectives for a more prosperous and peaceful world.

What are the causes of gender inequality?

Gender prejudice and resulting gender discrimination begin in childhood. From the moment they’re born, girls and boys face unequal gender norms as well as social norms regarding expectations and access to resources and opportunities, with lifelong consequences – in their homes, schools and communities.

For example, the world’s boys are often encouraged to go to school and get an education to prepare for work, while girls carry heavy household responsibilities that keep them from school, increasing the odds of child marriage and pregnancy.

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In Ukraine a boy stands outside on a paved area near a yellow building.

What are the effects of gender inequality?

Despite worldwide progress, gender inequality persists. The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened to put years of hard-won progress at risk. Far too many girls, especially those from the poorest families, still face gender discrimination in education, child marriage and pregnancy, sexual violence and unrecognized domestic work. These are some types of gender inequality. 

Gender Inequality Examples:

  • Gender inequality in girls education. Even before the pandemic, girls were more likely than boys to never set foot in a classroom and be denied equal opportunities. Conflict, poverty and other forms of social disadvantage also magnify gender inequality in education. Girls living in countries affected by conflict, for example, are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys. Some 9.7 million children were at risk of being forced out of school by the end of 2020, with girls facing an increased risk.
  • Child marriage. Child marriage is a form of gender-based violence and a result and driver of gender inequality and gender discrimination. Experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic is set to reverse 25 years of progress, which saw child marriage rates decline. In fact, Save the Children analysis revealed a further 2.5 million girls at risk of marriage by 2025 because of the pandemic—the greatest surge in child marriage rates in nearly three decades.
  • Gender-based violence. Gender-based violence occurs everywhere around the world across all economic and social groups. While both boys and girls are negatively impacted, girls are particularly at risk. An estimated 1 in 3 women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly at the hands of their partners. Types of violence may include: prenatal sex selection, female infanticide, neglect, female genital mutilation, rape, child marriage, forced prostitution, honor killing and dowry killing. Many of these gross violations of human rights have been used as weapons of war around the world. Refugee children are particularly vulnerable.
  • Child labor. There are currently 152 million children engaged in child labor around the world. [3] Child labor makes it difficult for children to attend school or limits their attendance, putting them at risk of falling behind their peers. Boys and girls are affected differently by child labor and parents’ decisions are often influenced by wider social norms about the different roles that they should play in the home and in society. Girls are much more likely to shoulder the responsibility for household chores while boys are more likely to engage in harmful work such as construction. Girls are usually pulled out of school earlier than boys and are more likely to face sexual exploitation and slavery.


What is the importance of gender equality?

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future. Eradicating gender issues means a world where women and men, girls and boys all enjoy equal rights, resources, opportunities and protections.

Empowering girls from the start is proven to have lasting and compounding benefits over the course of their lives. When girls are supported to be active in civic and political spaces, in particular, they are empowered with the tools and skills they need to be drivers of positive change in their families and communities. Girls are the experts of their own experiences, priorities and needs, and are powerful catalysts for a world where gender equality flourishes.

Promoting gender equality is also central to ensuring child protection and the fulfillment of child rights, as abuse, neglect, violence against women and exploitation both reflect and reinforce gender inequalities

What are the effects of gender equality on society?

When girls are empowered to lead their lives, speak their minds and determine their futures, everyone benefits. History suggests that when we fight gender oppression, societies are more stable, safe and prosperous, with happier, better educated citizens. 

Investing in gender equality can have large-scale benefits:

  • Every $1 invested in women’s and children’s health can generate a $20 return – according to the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health
  • A girl’s eventual income will increase by up to 20% for every year she stays in school – according to UN Women. It also encourages girls to marry later and have fewer children, and leaves them less vulnerable to violence.
  • Advancing women’s equality could add up to $28 trillion to global annual growth by 2025 – according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
Mother and baby survive with their family in an evacuation camp in Indonesia after an earthquake.

How does Save the Children challenge gender discrimination and promote gender equality?

Gender equality is a basic right for all people, including both girls and boys. Based on this understanding, Save the Children believes that it is critical to directly address gender discrimination and gender inequality in order to ensure that no harm comes to children, and to advance our vision for a world where every child attains their equal right to grow up healthy, educated and safe.

A focus on gender equality is essential to close inequality gaps and ensure that we reach every last child, including those who are most vulnerable. Gender inequalities intersect with and exacerbate other factors contributing to vulnerability, including age, race, socio-economic class, gender identity, geography, health status and ability.

To build a more equal, inclusive future, free from gender discrimination, we need to start in childhood. Thanks to supporters like you, Save the Children reaches hundreds of millions of children every year, promoting gender equality and empowering girls, right from the start.

Promoting gender equality works! Since 2000, Save the Children helped achieve a 25% decline in child marriage worldwide, empowering 11 million girls to stay in school or transition to work, deciding for themselves when they’re ready for marriage and motherhood.

In addition, Save the Children is proud to be the first nonprofit to be Gender Fair-certified for our commitment to advancing gender equality and empowering the world’s girls.


[1] Equality Can't Wait | [2] U.N Women | [3]Child Labour Position

**Sources: Unless otherwise noted, gender inequality facts and gender inequality statistics have been sourced from Save the Children’s program and monitoring and evaluation experts, as well as published reports, including our gender equality reports.

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Learn More About the Challenges Girls Face Around the World