To identify girls’ rights and determine how these are being addressed in international law, the report surveys legally binding and non-binding instruments, international and regional conventions, as well as negotiated and non-negotiated international soft law. The report audits the provisions where girls’ rights are mentioned and where they aren’t, and analyses when and why States opt out of particular provisions.
LEGALLY BINDING LAWS AND TREATIES
Girls are often invisible in core conventions – their rights, and the particular challenges they face, are concealed either under the ageless category of “women”, or the gender-neutral category of “children”, “adolescents”, or “youth”.
Two mutually reinforcing conventions on women’s and children’s rights form the cornerstone for protecting and promoting girls’ rights in law – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Yet girls are largely invisible in both conventions. The CRC was designed to be gender neutral, but scholars argue that the interpretation given to it is biased predominantly towards boys, while disregarding the distinct discrimination faced by girls. For example, violations that typically affect boys (e.g. child soldiers) are covered in Article 38 but not those predominantly affecting girls (e.g. child marriage).
CEDAW theoretically applies to women of all ages. However, girls seldom feature within it as rights-bearing individuals: it only refers to girls once in the context of education and female student drop-out rates. It also has surprising omissions: General Recommendation 14 on female circumcision fails to mention “girls” once even though girls (as opposed to women) are more commonly subjected to the practice.
All other human rights treaties – regional and international – offer girls additional, albeit general, protection. However, only some specifically acknowledge girls’ particular needs and vulnerabilities. Girls are predominantly referred to regarding violence, education and discrimination. Regional conventions widen this scope with references to property rights, employment, health care, sexual and reproductive health. Additionally, where girls are referred to in international law, there is a tendency to frame them as victims of violations rather than recognising and supporting their capacity to be active agents of change.
Other factors are making international conventions less effective for girls than originally hoped. These include ambiguous terminology such as the CRC’s “best interest of the child” principle; and States using reservations to avoid committing fully to all aspects of treaties, or refusing to be bound by them altogether.
INTERNATIONAL SOFT LAW
Girls are more prominent in international soft law but many references to girls are often merely an add-on to the term “women”, who are the main focus for human rights protections.
International soft laws are quasi-legal instruments with no legally binding force. They act as authoritative standards, strengthening commitment to agreements, reaffirming international norms, and establishing a legal foundation for subsequent treaties. The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, for example, was pivotal for describing girls’ rights as “an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of universal human rights” and for urging States to defend them for the first time in history.
Analysis of soft law reveals the importance of the language used in securing advances for girls’ rights. In recent years, there has been a noted roll-back on some girls’ rights due in part to a failure to consistently use progressive language. This failure creates room for bargaining tactics during negotiations and results in weaker protection for girls. In addition, certain areas receive far less attention in soft law due to political sensitivities. Girls’ reproductive and sexual rights are highly controversial issues compared to a girl’s right to education, for instance, or her right to be free from violence.
Consequently, a girl’s rights to decide what happens to her own body, and over whom to marry, to own property or inherit, are not consistently expressed throughout international law – meaning that protection against violations is patchy at best.
Finally, girls are often simply added on to provisions aimed at women. Girls’ rights become framed in soft law as a first step towards the main goal of empowering adult women politically, socially and economically – rather than realising the rights of girls during childhood and adolescence.