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Girl Child – to jubilate or bewail, that is the question

No one is incognisant of the pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance and mistreatment faced by the fairer sex in that particular society. From commodification of girls and women alike to burying female infants alive, muliebrity has witnessed a lot. People living in that part of the world had their own reasons as to why the birth of a girl child was held a lamentable moment for the entire household, but their rationalities bear extremely highly similarity to the arguments presented by those living in today’s world, in the 21stcentury. The evolved dynamics have, however, only magnified the intensity of concerns felt by society, in general, and parents, in particular, the ever-increasing rate of female foeticide being one classic example that aptly vindicates this stance.

The “low status’ enjoyed by women in patriarchal societies is in direct proportion with the bias against females which is a major cause of perturbation in several countries, including Pakistan and India. It is in this regard that the United Nations (UN) declared 11 October as International Day of the Girl Child. It has entered its sixth year, but the purpose behind commemorating it on annual basis “to highlight and address the needs and challenges girl face, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights” still seems to be a distant milestone.

There exists an indubitable need to increase awareness regarding gender inequality faced by girls all over the globe which is spanning over, but not limited to, the realms of health care, legal rights, food and nutrition, right to education, violence and discrimination, sexual violence, and forced and/or child marriages. The observance of this day aims to achieve this goal by talking about the apparently invisible and trifling issues and problems faced by girls and giving due importance to them and their opinion in the plethora of global development research and plans.

Like most of the other days observed, the Day of the Girl, too, is assigned a different theme each year the purpose of which is to highlight one key issue that is pestering the female sex around the world. The pace of the desired progress of the movement is usually and mostly gauged in terms of figures and statistics which, in this particular case, are quite worrisome and distressful.

Ending child marriage: This was the slogan raised in the inaugural year, i.e. 2012. The term “child marriage” does not require a formal definition to annotate itself. Any formal or informal union that is entered into by an individual, mostly a girl, before reaching a certain age, specified as 16 by some and 18 by other global organisations. The causes are easy to enumerate but not too simple to be comprehended as this form of commitment is more of a cultural practise than the one permitted by law. Several Syrian families that migrated to other countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, were compelled to give away their daughters as brides in exchange for money (bride price) and burden of feeding and responsibility. Poverty, illiteracy, perceived inability of women to have a professional life and religious customs are some of the many pertinent reasons that are mentioned to zip the lips of those advocating the slogan.

A report published by the United Nations Population Fund titled “Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage” stated: “For the period 2000-2011, just over one-third (an estimated 34 per cent) of women aged 20 to 24 years in developing regions were married or in union before their 18th birthday. In 2010 this was equivalent to almost 67 million women. About 12 per cent of them were married or in union before age 15.” Africa, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is the region that has the highest rates of child marriage, with over 70 per cent of girls marrying under the age of 18 in just three nations – Ethiopia, Chad and Niger – where the legal marriage age is already 15 but religious and cultural practices have allowed marriages below 12 years of age.

South and South-East Asia are no different in this regard as a report published by the Human Rights Watch in 2013 claims 53 per cent of all married women in Afghanistan to have been subjected to this “norm”. No wonder the practice is still widely prevalent all over the Arabian Peninsula, as Saudi clerics have justified the marriage of girls as young as nine after having obtained sanction from the judiciary. India, however, has taken the leap by ruling on Wednesday that sex with an underage wife constitutes rape, overturning a previous clause that permitted men to have sex with a married girl as young as 15. The judgment is no less than a cusp achievement given that 47 per cent of Indian girls are married by the age of 18. On the other hand, the worthy Senate of Pakistan has lately rejected The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill by calling it “un-Islamic”, ringing alarm bells for our society.

Innovating for girl’s education: Girls’ right to education is the foremost, yet the most denied, right in many parts of the world. The major factors that play the role in causing hindrances for girls’ access to education include marginalisation, safety, financial conditions of parents, cultural barriers, and the general perception of confining women for household chores. In the given scenario, innovation was promoted as “an important strategy in addressing the nature and scale of barriers girls continue to face and in ensuring they receive an education commensurate with the challenges of the 21st century”. The potential tools proposed by UNICEF that were to be employed by all UN agencies, member states, civil society and private sector organisations included improving means of transportation, ensuring the integrity of school facilities and functions, provision of courses related to the fields of science and technology, corporate mentorship programmes that could facilitate the transition from school to work, and revision of school curricula. Unfortunately, much of the progress in this regard is limited to the documentation and very few of the defined goals could be achieved in actuality as millions of girls in third and second world countries continue to be deprived of this fundamental right.

Empowering adolescent girls: Ending the cycle of violence: The basic concept behind this theme is reflected in three words: Adolescence, Violence, Empowerment. Defined as the time period between the beginning of puberty and adulthood, adolescence is perceived to be the most critical period that can “determine the trajectory of girls’ lives”. It is this very stage wherein key investments are required to free them of violence, harassment and abuse and empower them against recurrent constraints and other negativities. Although suggestions like promoting vocational education and training, making infrastructural facilities, services and technology accessible to girls, encouraging them to participate in political and economic activities, and advocating against violence against girls and women were proposed in the year 2014 by different organisations, the lion’s share of this does not seem achievable in the forthcoming future.

The Power of Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030: The theme brought into spotlight the need to work for empowerment of girls in light of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda realised the sufferings of girls merely for being young and female and acknowledged the need to focus attention to their health and well-being, including sexual and reproductive health. It is not co-incidental to have two of the defined Sustainable Development Goals that are directly relevant to serve the purpose of gender equality:

“SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: What Counts for Girls: Despite a large-scale dissemination of Sustainable Development Goals regarding gender equality, statistics revealed high degree of disadvantage and discrimination borne by girls in almost all parts of the world. Owing to this there existed a dire need to focus on collecting and analysing “girl-focused, girl-relevant and sex-disaggregated data” using which key policies and programmes that cater to the opportunities and challenged faced by girls could be worked out. It was in this regard that 2015’s Day of the Girl was observed with this theme, insisting on realising “how existing gaps in data on girls and young women, lack of systematic analysis, and limited use of existing data significantly constrain our ability to monitor and communicate the well-being and progress of nearly half of humanity”.

EmPOWER Girls: Before, during and after crises: Recent years have seen prolonged spans of conflicts, wars and aftershocks of catastrophes, resulting in long-term displacements and refuge-seeking migration. The families, amid the struggle to survive, are left with very few choices that in turn leave girls with even less options. It makes the young girls of these families more vulnerable to gender-based discrimination and sexual violence, rape, slavery and trafficking to quote a few. Parents in such situations prefer marrying them off in exchange for an adequate bride price that could suffice their needs for a certain period of time and provide their daughters with a secure household. Exploitation, however, exists everywhere which has now become a major concern, hence the selection of this theme.

All we need to collectively realise as a society is that no advancement whatsoever is possible without taking into account and addressing the challenges faced by gender(s) other than that of men. In an era when transgenders are standing up for their rights, the visibly large portion of the world cannot be left neglected. To quote Gloria Steinem, an American feminist and political activist: “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”

Suhail, Aminah. Girl Child – to jubilate or bewail, that is the question. Pakistan Today, October 15, 2017.

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