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“Climate change, pandemics, and conflicts are rolling back decades of progress for girls”

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“Climate change, pandemics, and conflicts are rolling back decades of progress for girls”

On 11 October 2022, we commemorate the International Day of the Girl Child to recognise girls’ rights and the many challenges millions of girls around the world still face today. We have spoken to Susan McIsaac, CEO of our partner organisation Right To Play, about the empowerment of girls as prerequisite for sustainable development.

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1. Mrs McIsaac, you are the CEO the organisation Right To Play. Right To Play all started with an encounter between the Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss and a little boy playing football in Eritrea. Please introduce us to the story and work of the organisation.

Yes, indeed. Our founder, the Olympian speed skater Johann Olav Koss, was visiting Eritrea on a humanitarian mission shortly after the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games. The newly founded country had been devastated by war.
On the trip, he met one boy who was wearing a shirt with long sleeves, and he showed Johann how he could roll the shirt up and tie the sleeves to form a ball in order to play games with his friends. Even amid all of that devastation, the boy’s desire to play had brought out his creativity and determination. Inspired by that meeting, Johann went on to found Right To Play to harness the power of play to transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children.

Since we founded, we’ve continued to explore the ways that play can spark profound changes in children’s lives. Our work focuses on cultivating children’s strengths and abilities, inside and outside the classroom, so they can create a brighter future for themselves and for all of us.

2. Today, on 11 October 2022, we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl Child to recognise girls’ rights and the many challenges girls face around the world. The UN emphasises that the empowerment of girls and promoting gender equality is crucial to accelerating sustainable development. It is also an important pillar of Right To Play’s strategy. Could you elaborate?

Girls face an especially tough time in the world today. They’re more likely to be out of school than boys, they’re less likely to finish school even if they’re in it, and they’re more likely to experience serious rights abuses, like child marriage.

When a family can only afford to send one child to school, it’s much more likely to be a boy. Instead, the girls are at risk of being sent off to work or married off. That leads to a learning gap between girls and boys, and that learning gap leads to situations where girls end up economically dependent and struggle to take back control of their bodies and their futures.

3. So you are saying education is the most effective way out of the vicious circle?

Exactly, education is the foundation of girls’ equality, and if there’s one thing I’ve realised from talking to girls in our programmes, it’s that girls know how important education is for their futures. Girls are eager to learn: about the world, about their rights, and about what they can accomplish if they’re simply allowed to try. I want the millions of girls around the world who are trying to learn to get the chance.

At Right To Play, we talk about it as “saving a seat” for them. We want more inclusive classrooms, ones where girls can fully participate, and their contributions are valued. We want girls to have access to the best education they can, an education that will engage and excite them and turn them into self-motivated, lifelong learners. We want to close that learning gap and ensure that girls are free to pursue their dreams and are not held back by poverty, sexist barriers, or low expectations. We want to create supportive communities with positive role models for girls that encourage them to forge their own path in life. We want girls to become leaders, changemakers, and global citizens who can help the next generation of girls to find their own way.

4. And yet we know that the situation for thousands of girls has got worse by concurrent crises of climate change, COVID-19 and humanitarian conflict. Do these developments have an impact on your strategy and priorities?

Yes, they do. Climate change, pandemics, and conflicts are rolling back decades of progress for girls. What we’re trying to do is strengthen girls’ resilience and abilities faster than these conditions can erode them. We’re working with the global community to help some of the world’s most vulnerable girls.

Our work is happening within the umbrella of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. That means we are co-ordinating with many other global organisations and governments working on the same issues. The unique contribution we bring is our experience and expertise at using play to unlock children’s abilities. We can help girls get to a position where they are actively contributing to creating a more equitable future for themselves and others.

To do that, we’re building partnerships with governments, local communities, and other organisations to strengthen their ability to support girls using our methods. We’re making our approach more widely accessible to more educators around the world by creating new digital tools they can learn from. We’re reaching out to the hardest hit and most vulnerable girls to help them access the kind of support that will empower them.

5. It seems that Right To Play has adapted its strategy over the years. The focus seems to have shifted from sports to education and play.

Ultimately, we want to protect, educate, and empower children to rise above adversity. Our work has expanded over time, but our current approach is to support children in four key areas: we promote quality education for them, we empower girls, we help children stay healthy and mentally strong, and we protect them from violations of their rights.

We still use sports programmes to teach important life skills. In several of the countries where we work, sports are seen as “unladylike” and girls are discouraged from participating, even to the point of not having physical education classes for girls at all in some places. The sports programmes we run are sometimes the only ones that girls can access locally. They’re a great way for girls to learn to believe in themselves, to practice teamwork and communication skills, and to learn how to handle success and defeat.

Education is important to us because it is so important for children’s futures, and play is a key part of that. When you look at top educational systems around the world, you’ll see that very young children are strongly encouraged to spend their time playing. Play is how children naturally learn skills like problem-solving, creativity, and how to set goals and stick to them even when things don’t go according to plan. They bring those skills into the classroom, where they are crucial for success in school. The more children can play, the better they will do when the time comes to learn to read or do maths.

For girls struggling to overcome the learning gap, the stronger those life skills are, the better the chance they have to graduate from school. These are the skills that they’ll keep as they grow into empowered and independent young women who are ready to take on leadership roles in their societies. They are the skills they will bring to bear on creating a more equitable world and helping the next generation of girls to rise in turn.

6. May we close this interview with a more personal question: What motivated you to pursue your career? What is your purpose?

I have always believed in the resilience of people and have found it very gratifying to watch individuals, particularly children, thrive when given opportunity. Right To Play has been a wonderful organisation for me to be a part of – the mission and mandate are so closely aligned with my interest and values. I'm inspired by the potential and possibilities of the children we work with. I want them to grow up and achieve all the incredible things that they are capable of if only they get the chance.


Millions of girls face a bleak present in which they cannot claim their right to an education or the brighter future it will bring them. Forces beyond their control conspire to limit their dreams and their futures.

But girls want a brighter future, and they are doing their best to claim it in the face of these incredible challenges. We need to act now and support them.

You can start with a seat.