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A Day For Global Girls Gets People Talking, But Then What?

High School students participate in a rally for the International Day of the Girl Child in Ahmedabad, India.
Sam Panthaky
AFP/Getty Images
High School students participate in a rally for the International Day of the Girl Child in Ahmedabad, India.

Tomorrow marks the third International Day of the Girl Child, designated by the U.N. to highlight the need to create a better world for adolescent girls.

It's a day when activists ramp up efforts to make the public aware of issues like child marriage, violence against girls and the lack of access to education. It's also a time for activists to push world leaders to make commitments — financial or policy-wise — to end those problems.

But these days, it seems like every other day is the International Day of this, that or the other thing. In October alone, the U.N. has designated 13 days to celebrate teachers, the eradication of poverty, even the U.N. itself.

It makes you wonder: How effective are these commemorative days? Goats and Soda asked a few scholars who specialize in global issues. Their answers were decidedly mixed.

Commemorative days have their defenders. Activists single out an issue for the public, government and private donors to focus on. "It forces a lot of governments and agencies to comment on a certain issue," says Casey Dunning, a policy analyst at the D.C.-based think tank Center for Global Development.

And it's more than just comments.

A few years back, the challenges of girls weren't even on the agenda of world leaders, much less on the minds of the average person. The first Day of the Girl, in 2012, changed that. It focused on ending child marriage, enabling activists to bring the issue to the fore, says Lyric Thompson, a senior policy manager at the International Center for Research on Women.

That year, the U.S. State Department included child marriage in the annual Human Rights Report, putting pressure on countries to end the practice. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also announced a slew of initiatives, including tackling child marriage in Bangladesh, where rates are among the highest in the world.

Between the U.S. government and private donors, Thompson says, roughly $100 million was pledged to those initiatives.

So the day led to new commitments to help girls. But you can't prove that the day itself had any impact on the ground, says Daniel Esser, an American University professor who does research on the effectiveness of international aid.

"My concern is they don't serve the people they're intended to serve, but the agencies that invent and popularize them," he says. So the benefit may turn out to be bigger budgets and staff along with more political leverage for those agencies.

That's good for the agencies, but what about the girls?

Esser points to a 2013 study that asked whether money that the United Kingdom invested in global development groups led to greater impact on the ground. The results, he says, are "sobering."

The British government rated the impact of agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Development Fund for Women as "poor." The World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund received an "adequate" score.

So does that means we should do away with dedicated days?

Dunning says you can't expect one day to spark a revolution. But that doesn't mean it's not an effective way to raise awareness.

"It plants a seed," says Thompson. "And if we're lucky, that seed's going to wiggle and grow."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Poon