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At the turn of the decade, gender inequality still affects majority of UK girls, reveals new report

At the turn of the decade, gender inequality still affects majority of UK girls

A new decade may not mean a new dawn for girls’ rights in the UK, as girls feel ‘fed up and frustrated’ with empty messages of female empowerment, according to a comprehensive study of girls’ lives by charity Plan International UK.

In a survey of over 1,000 girls aged 14-211 for the State of Girls’ Rights in the UK 2020 report, six in 10 (60%) girls said they believe males are treated better than females in the UK. These girls noticed differences in treatment in the media (72%), at school (41%) and even at home (22%).

And more than half of girls (57%) said they have personally encountered a situation where they believe they would have been treated better if they were male.

Megan, 17, from Inverness says:

“I feel like boys have more freedom than girls, when it comes to like being able to walk out alone especially at night and stuff. My mum won’t let me out past a certain time – I get a curfew and my brother doesn’t. So I can already feel the inequality there just even with my own parent. I guess it comes from a place of concern mainly, but it is kind of a shame.”

The report also outlines how regional inequality means some girls are left even further behind, with Blackpool named the toughest place to be a girl in the UK2. The analysis of measures of girls’ rights and quality of life – including child poverty, life expectancy and Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) status - also puts Liverpool, Nottingham and Kingston Upon Hull in the ten lowest performing local authorities.

The report includes first-hand commentary from girls across the country, sharing  perspectives on key areas of their lives including how safe they feel on the streets, their experience of school, their mental health and body image, and their perspectives on politics and participation3.

Plan International UK is calling on the new UK Government to bring a new focus to delivering girls’ rights, to help deliver gender equality across the UK. The report outlines a series of recommendations to tackle the key challenges that girls raised, including stopping street harassment, ending the stigma of menstruation and remodelling girls’ experiences of school.

The charity is calling for gender champions to be created at national, devolved and local levels to ensure that these priorities become a reality for girls across the country.


Rose Caldwell, CEO of Plan International UK, says:

“As we enter 2020, it’s extremely saddening, but not surprising, that our report finds girls still feel disempowered and unable to realise their rights here in the UK.

“They are told they can succeed, but they face a threat to their safety in public, online and in schools. They are told gender equality has been achieved, and yet they do not feel represented or heard in public life. If adolescent girls are feeling undervalued, unheard and under-represented in public life, we as a society are letting them down. This simply cannot continue. 

“The findings in this report should serve as a wake-up call for all politicians and leaders. Policies at both national and local level are currently not going far enough to tackle inequality, but introducing Gender Champions would make sure girls start to see real change at every level of decision-making.”


Key findings in the State of Girls Rights 2019/20:

Girls do not feel safe in public: The majority of girls living in both urban and rural areas reported being severely affected by continual street harassment. Girls said they don’t feel safe moving through the places they live on their own, and constantly have to adapt their behaviours to avoid being physically and verbally harassed.

Abby, 16 and from Norfolk, said: “You’ll have that one person who’s just sitting at the back of the bus and is staring at you. And occasionally, they’ll make their way and sit right next to you and just start talking to you. …  But I try my best to sit next to the bus driver, as close as I can, so he has me in his eye line and if something happens then I can say, “I need help.”

The Government must implement its national strategy to end violence against women and girls; ensure girls are supported to report street harassment when it happens and invest in safe spaces for girls, especially in the most deprived areas.

Girls still face inequality in the classroom: Gendered subject choices are holding girls back from careers where women are underrepresented, they experience a shockingly high rate of sexual harassment from their school peers, and feel singled out by policies which unfairly impact girls like strict uniform rules or not being able to use the toilet during classes.

In the charity’s focus groups, girls talked about a lack of support in dealing with these issues; having their phones taken away because they were sent ‘dick pics’, being told to leave school if they didn’t want to see their abuser or being sent out of the classroom for wearing leggings.

In order to commit to tackling gender inequality in schools, Plan International UK is asking the government to better equip and inform teachers and modernise their resources to meet the specific needs of girls.

Girls voices’ are not being heard: Since the charity’s previous 2016 report, girls have been encouraged by the rise of young female activists like Greta Thunberg and Amika George. But they spoke of feeling unheard on issues like Brexit, being bullied for identifying as feminists, and are worryingly put off politics by the toxic abuse received by prominent female MPs.

Hannah, 15 and from the Scottish Highlands, said: “I think feminism is hugely important right now. But there are a lot of people that have been saying things like. ‘oh it’s ‘man hating’ and ‘everyone’s already equal’ but it’s not true. And I feel like there needs to be more awareness.”

The charity is urging policymakers to invest in the meaningful participation of girls and young women at local, regional and national levels.

Girls’ bodies are constantly scrutinized and stigmatised: Cultural pressure to look a certain way remains a key source of anxiety in girls’ lives. At the same time, a culture of stigma and silence around periods has turned menstruation into a hidden public health issue, putting girls' physical, sexual and mental health at risk.

From the images they see in the media to harmful comments at school, girls are feeling pressured to conform to unrealistic beauty and body standards. This is exacerbated by the exponential number of images girls are exposed to today – both online and offline.

Plan International UK’s survey of over 1,000 girls aged 14-21 found that 72% of girls have seen photos of themselves that have made them feel bad about the way they look. It takes, on average, 10 photo attempts before young girls are happy to post a photo on social media.

The Government must do more to tackle these issues, including ensuring that a gender analysis is core to any initiative aiming to tackle poor body image.

To read the full report and find out more about Plan International UK’s work with girls, visit