For weeks, I have felt like the world is witnessing a defining moment in our fight for gender equality.

All around the globe the rights of girls are in the balance, their freedoms are at risk and governments are making decisions that could change girls’ lives forever.

In Australia, a new Foreign Policy White Paper is being developed; defining the most important values that Australia stands for on the world stage. In this critical moment in the fight for gender equality, the Australian government has a choice to make; to choose to stand for the rights of women and girls across the globe by making gender equality a cornerstone of the White Paper or staying silent.

In the United States, the new administration has just reinstated a federal ban on funding for international organisations that counsel women on family planning options that include abortion.  The ban potentially affects millions of women and girls in the developing world and the services they rely on, including family planning, HIV and maternal and child health services.

The impact on adolescent girls will be devastating. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are consistently among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to19 in low and middle-income countries. When a mother is under 20, her child is 50 percent more likely to be stillborn or die within its first weeks of life than a baby born to an older mother.

In Bangladesh, a new proposed child marriage law provides a broad, undefined exception for girls under the age of 18 to be married in “special cases”. The law has been criticised by advocates, saying the exception is a backward step in the fight to end child marriage in Bangladesh, a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 52% of girls married under the age of 18.

At the same time, I have been inspired and heartened by the millions of people who have turned out to march and stand in solidarity against gender inequality and injustice in all its forms.

The Women’s March was a moment of resistance. It was a clear message that people will not give up the hard won rights of women and girls without a fight.

Now, more than ever, we need strong global leadership in the fight for gender equality. We need countries like Australia to step up on the world stage to be a champion for the rights of girls.

In December 2016, the Minster for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, announced that the government would be developing a new Foreign Affairs White Paper.

The White Paper will be the key document guiding Australia’s foreign policy for the next ten to 15 years, setting out Australia’s most important principles and interests for engaging with the world and working with allies and partners in the decade ahead. 

We have an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that gender equality is one of our nation’s defining values and that it guides the way in which we engage with the world.  

So why is it so critically important for the Australian government to be a champion for girls’ rights and gender equality on the world’s stage?

Girls, when they are educated, empowered and treated as equals, hold the key to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and driving progress for everyone – for themselves, their families, communities and countries.

Yet girls are, in many parts of the world, the least likely to be educated and empowered. They bear a disproportionate burden of household chores, are less likely to complete formal schooling, have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to face child marriage and early pregnancy before they reach the age of 19.

If Australia is serious about promoting economic development, peace and security in our region, removing the barriers for girls and creating the conditions they need to be educated, healthy and empowered is critical.

This is undeniably a moment in time for women and girls across the world.

The government has the opportunity to grasp this moment, to stand with women and girls across the globe and to articulate Australia’s vision for a world free from gender inequality.

If you believe Australia should be a champion for women and girls around the world, you can have your say: Write a submission for the government's Foreign Policy White Paper and tell them to put girls on the agenda.

Related Stories