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The State of Girls'' Rights in the UK: Executive Summary

For 79 years, Plan International UK has fought to deliver and protect the rights of millions of children – especially girls – across Latin America, Africa and Asia. In this report, marking an exciting new phase in our history, we turn our attention for the first time to the UK. Our analysis poses the question, ‘What is the current state of girls’ rights in the UK?’ Sadly, the answer is clear. We may be the fifth-richest country in the world, but we are failing our girls, and failing to meet international standards set out in human rights frameworks and the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By exploring the real experiences of girls in the UK, our intent is for policy makers and decision makers to recognise this reality – and act.

Plan International UK is the expert on girls’ rights. Decades of global experience tell us that due to their gender and age, adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to having their rights denied. This is now a widely accepted premise in the sphere of international development, yet little understood in the UK domestic space. Taking its lead from Plan International’s flagship ‘State of the World’s Girls’ report series, this report shows that, as in other parts of the world, being young and female in the UK comes with specific challenges – challenges that today seem greater than ever. For instance, research we conducted into sexual harassment in schools has shown:

  • One in five women (22 per cent) in the UK reported some experience of sexual touching, groping, flashing, sexual assault or rape while they were in or around school.
  • Reports of sexual offences in UK schools have more than doubled in recent years to an average of 10 each school day.
  • Two thirds of victims of reported sex offences on school premises are girls or women (66 per cent).

We also discover that a girl’s location is critical: Middlesbrough is named the worst place in England and Wales to be a girl, while Waverley, Surrey – ranked as the
best – is somewhere that girls are likelier to fully enjoy their rights based on life expectancy, child poverty, reproductive health and educational outcomes.

Despite this, we don’t talk enough about adolescent girls as a particular demographic group; we talk about ‘children’, ‘teenagers’ and then ‘women’. Nor do we understand with sufficient depth their complex identities: as girls, but also as being a particular race, class, sexual orientation or religion, or living with a disability. Very seldom do we talk about girls’ rights. Yet human rights, most recently expressed through the SDGs, can help us to better understand – and tackle – the problems that girls face. At a global level, Plan International argues that to achieve the SDGs, girls must be able to learn, lead, thrive and decide. And critically, the SDGs are universal: a girl’s rights are the same wherever she lives, and so too must be our commitment to securing them, including in the UK.

We argue that in the UK, often discussed problems need to be understood from girls’ particular perspectives, and in terms of human rights. What’s more, digital technology is throwing up new problems for girls that we haven’t begun to conceptualise. So, through two methodologies, qualitative and quantitative, and supported by existing evidence, we bring new depth and breadth to our understanding of what it means to be a girl in the UK.

  • First, through focus group interviews with 103 girls and young women from across the UK, we listen to what girls say about their own lives, with clear themes emerging. This is supported by interviews with relevant professionals.
  • Second, an unprecedented analysis of available data paints a quantitative picture of some of the critical challenges girls face, highlighting stark regional variations.

The conclusions we draw are clear, and worrying. Across a range of themes and indicators, girls are being denied their rights. Readers will be familiar with particularly shocking rights violations such as sexual exploitation. This report seeks to shine a light too on the everyday barriers to girls’ rights and quality of life that have become an accepted part of their lives. By bringing our experience to bear in the UK, we hope to see a step change in how girls’ lives are understood, and an urgent commitment to tackling the challenges they face. We’re one of most developed countries on the planet: we can do better.