Margaux Pyls campaigns for girls’ rights in job swap with Meryame Kitir

Brussels, 11 October - On the 10th International Day of the Girl, VUB graduate and activist Margaux Pyls put herself in minister Meryame Kitir’s shoes for a day. Margaux is a recent VUB graduate, with a master’s in education, and an activist at children’s and girls’ rights organisation Plan International. The job swap was part of the Girls’ Takeover event, with which Plan International Belgium draws attention to girls’ rights worldwide. Kitir later attended Margaux’s proclamation.

What would you do if you were minister for a day? That was the question Margaux and her Plan International colleague Louise has the chance to answer when they took over from Kitir, the minister of development cooperation, and minister of foreign affairs Sophie Wilmès.

“Girls’ rights must be a priority on the international agenda,” says Margaux. “We all have the same potential, but not always the same opportunities. That has to change.”

 Margaux sat with Kitir’s staff and opened an international conference on access to education, while Louise stepped into the shoes of Wilmès. She explained to the Council of Ministers why she was replacing Wilmès and opened an international conference on the future of Europe. She was also the first young person to enter the Council of Ministers.

Who runs the world? Girls!

The choice of two female ministers was deliberate: the organisation wants to show that girls can dream of top positions in which they can change the world. “Unfortunately, it is still the case that girls have fewer opportunities for work or education,” says Kitir. “So it’s good that with Plan International Belgium we are giving extra attention to this.” 

Girls’ rights are under threat worldwide and the problems have been exacerbated by both the coronavirus and climate change. But 10 years after the first International Day of the Girl, there is also hopeful news. For instance, Kitir and Wilmès are the first female ministers of development cooperation and foreign affairs and Wilmès also the first female prime minister of Belgium. Both are happy to support the young activists’ message: the future is equal!

 The two ministers look back with satisfaction on the work of their temporary substitutes. “I found it a very pleasant experience to spend a day with Margaux,” says Kitir, who attended Margaux’s proclamation ceremony as a fellow student. “It felt a bit like a takeover for me too: I could stand in her shoes for a while. I think that is very important. Talking to strong young women like Margaux motivates me and gives direction to our policy.”

Climate or corona, girls are the first to suffer

 “Although attention to girls’ rights has increased in recent years, today they are increasingly under pressure,” says Jorn Vennekens, spokesperson at Plan International Belgium. “Climate change is a telling example of this.” Girls, due to their gender and age, are at greater risk of facing the consequences. United Nations figures show that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women.

Plan International Belgium also sees in its partner countries that the fight is far from over. Every year, some 12 million girls are married off before their 18th birthday and 3 million are at risk of genital mutilation. About 12 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth every year, with teenage pregnancy the main cause of death among 

girls in that age group. By setting up projects with local partners worldwide, Plan International is working on solutions to these problems. 

The coronavirus is also making life harder. Last year, Plan International highlighted the impact of the pandemic on girls’ education: compulsory school closures meant that many girls could not attend school and it is estimated that 20 million of them will never return. Either they started working in the meantime or are in danger of never finishing their education because of other problems. In short, Margaux and Louise had plenty to talk about during their day as ministers.

Young people have their say

It’s not only girls who want to be heard by the ministers. Previous research by Plan International Belgium and theBelgian development agency Enabel shows that committed young people want to work for international solidarity. They want their input taken into consideration in tackling international challenges, and feel that politicians do not pay enough attention to them. Some 170 schools joined Plan International’s call this month to engage young people in a meaningful way.

The Girls’ Takeover demonstrated the commitment of Kitir and Wilmès to involving young people, and girls in particular, in their policies.