“Empowerment of and investment in girls are key in breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence and in promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of their human rights”
-United Nations Resolution 66/170
October 11, 2014 is the third annual international Day of the Girl. The date was chosen by the United Nations in 2011 to bring attention to the rampant gender inequality in our world. Today, with the power of social media fanning the flames, we can take a moment to reflect on the challenges specific to girls. Some are true crises.
• Female infanticide. The United Nations estimates as many as 200 million girls are missing in the world today because of female infanticide. Does it matter how many millions of girls are missing because of female infanticide? If I told you one, single newborn girl was born only to have her mother cover her tiny mouth and nose with a wet cloth to snuff out this undesirable life, would that not be enough?
• Pay inequality. Women in the United States are earning 77% of what men are earning. To undervalue a woman in salary is to undervalue a woman as a whole. It is a short step from here to more damaging forms of misogyny.
• Violence against women. This comes in all forms – physical, emotional, or sexual. Very often the perpetrator is someone close to the woman, an intimate partner. Globally, nearly one third of women have experienced some form of violence from an intimate partner and as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by an intimate partner. If that’s what an intimate partner will do, imagine the fear women have of total strangers?
• Female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization reports that over 125 million women living today have been subjected to female genital mutilation. The practice has been perpetuated to stymie the libido of women or prevent them from engaging in illicit sexual activities. There are no health benefits but the list of complications is tragic: hemorrhage, recurrent infections, cysts, childbirth complications, pain, the need for future/repeated surgeries to correct the damage done and even death. These young girls are stripped of the right to their bodies and to a physiologic sexual experience.
• Child “marriage”. Would you consider it marriage if you were handed to someone older and bigger at the age of ten or twelve? The term, as foul as it sounds, is a euphemism still. More honestly, it is the community sanctioned rape of a child. The staggering statistics don’t do the problem justice. Do you know a ten year old girl? Can you imagine her at the hands of an adult man? Child “brides” often suffer severe and sometimes fatal genital trauma as a result of unwanted penetration by their “husbands.” Underage mothers are vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, as well as complications of childbirth including obstetric fistulas and high maternal and infant morbidity and mortality rates.
• Human trafficking. Human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states of the US and affects all countries in the world. The sex trade industry preys on children and the vulnerable, coercing victims to sell their bodies by force or fraud. Wars and economic instability have opened markets for the trade to flourish and it now generates billions per year. In some areas, the fear of AIDS has driven customers to seek younger girls who are less likely to be infected.
• Rape. Sexual assault is an underreported crime because of the shame and stigma associated with it. The justice system often paints the victim as a provoker or deserving of the attack. We have heard statistics as frightening as one in five women in college are sexually assaulted. Rape can be a singular, devastating event or it can be a lifetime as in the case of women who are abducted until they become pregnant, at which time they are culturally cornered into marrying their abductor-rapists. Marital rape is sometimes not recognized, as if to say that a man has an undeniable right to a woman’s genitals if he is her husband. Rape happens to people of all ages and both genders but is predominantly a crime against girls and women.
• Honor killings. I cannot think of a more tragically ironic phrase. Imagine a young girl raped, then killed at the hands of her own “loved ones” because she had brought dishonor to the family. Or parents murdering their own daughter because they believed she was looking inappropriately at a teenage boy through her window. How can we teach these families how to honor their daughters instead of false pride? How can we teach these communities not to demonize girls?
The very knowledge of these crises can be debilitating or it can be galvanizing. As parents, it is our responsibility to ensure that our girls are aware of the challenges they will face and given tools to overcome them. Contrary to what some executives might say, women in the work force should advocate for themselves.
But what about the other crises? We cannot teach our daughters to defend themselves against female genital mutilation or honor killings when the perpetrators are their own families. This involves a broader challenge – first and foremost recognizing the existence of a crisis and changing the mentalities and social norms that precipitate them. For practices that are local and cultural, like honor killing, child marriage or female genital mutilation, the best mechanism for change is altering the community’s attitude toward the practice. Laws and decrees are not helpful if they are not accompanied by heartfelt, internal shifts in attitude.
We can all do something to improve the lives of the girls around us. Tell your daughter she can be a nurse or a doctor. Tell her she can play with dolls or with remote control cars. Tell her not to apologize for voicing her opinion. Tell her every day is the Day of the Girl.