Sixteen-year-old Sonu, wearing her school uniform and a serious expression, holds a tattered textbook in Nepal.

"If my community had gender equality,” says 16-year-old Sonu, “it would be transformed.” Without our help, Sonu may be forced to leave school and marry young, like her five older sisters. She wants so much more. Nepal.

Gender Discrimination: (In)Equality 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. Join us.

What is gender discrimination?

Gender equality is a fundamental human right.

That right is violated by gender discrimination which, simply put, is any unequal treatment, including privilege and priority, on the basis gender. These inequalities start in childhood and are right now limiting the lifelong potential of children around the world – disproportionately affecting girls.

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?

Discrimination based on gender is prohibited under almost every human rights treaty. This includes international laws providing for equal 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.

In the U.S., there are federal, state and local laws that protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of gender. Moreover, 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 inequality and resulting discrimination begin in childhood. From the moment they’re born, girls and boys face unequal gender norms (or societal rules) 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.

What are the effects of gender inequality?

Despite worldwide progress, gender inequality persists. Far too many girls, especially those from the poorest families, still face discrimination with respect to basic education, child marriage and pregnancy, sexual violence and unrecognized domestic work. These are some types of gender discrimination:

  • Girls not in school. Girls are more likely than boys to never set foot in a classroom. At last estimate, some 15 million girls of primary school age will never get the chance to learn to read or write compared to about 10 million boys. Conflict, poverty and other forms of social disadvantage magnify gender disparities in education. Girls living in countries affected by conflict, for example, are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys.
  • Child marriage. More than 80% of children married before age 18 are girls. Child brides tend to be poor, under-educated and living in rural areas. Girls living in countries facing humanitarian crises are often most vulnerable of all. While the prevalence of child marriage is decreasing globally, an estimated 12 million girls marry in childhood each year. And without further reductions, more than 150 million more girls will marry by 2030.
  • Violence against girls. 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.
  • Unrecognized domestic work. Girls are much more likely than boys to shoulder responsibility for household chores, negatively impact their ability to go to school. Girls are also more likely than boys to perform “double work duty,” meaning both work in employment and household chores. Parents’ decisions are often influenced by wider social norms about the different roles that girls and boys should play in the home and in society.
Syrian refugee Amena, age 5, with her hands on her hips, and her brother Samer, age 8, stand outside a hospital in Italy.

Your support helps girls and boys, like Syrian refugees Amena* and Samer,* ages 5 and 8, to be equally empowered to succeed and lead, proven to result in more stable, prosperous and safe societies. *Child’s name changed for protection.

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. Gender equality means that 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 more equal world.

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 gender equal societies are more stable, safe and prosperous, with happier, better educated citizens. 

Consider these gender equality dividends:

  • 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.


What is Save the Children doing to challenge gender discrimination and promote 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 promote gender equality 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.

You can help challenge gender discrimination – changing children’s lives and the future we share!

When you support Save the Children – whether it’s by donating, advocating or participating in an event challenge – you’re challenge gender discrimination around the world, helping bridge the gap between the challenges girls face and the gender equal futures they deserve. You’re helping ensure all children have equal opportunities to grow up healthy, educated and safe. 

Together, we can change children’s lives – ultimately, transforming the future we all share.

**Sources: Unless otherwise noted, facts and 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.



***Photo credits: Victoria Zegler, Louis Leeson / Save the Children.


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