Girls face the double challenge of being female and being young, which can result in them having little opportunity to make decisions about their lives. Discrimination against girls is grounded in a series of traditions and norms, based on the assumption that biological differences between females and males justify that girls are denied access to rights, opportunity and voice. It is both systematic and widely tolerated. Emerging research commissioned by Plan in West Africa shows that, its manifestations, such as gender based violence, are deeply rooted in the inequalities between women and men, and girls and boys.
The Early Years
Discrimination against girls begins at birth, or earlier, through attitudes and patterns in behaviour passed down through generations. As this report demonstrates, the lower social status of a girl can have serious consequences for her health and well-being as she grows up and has children herself. By age five, most girls and boys have already internalised the gender role expectations communicated to them by their families, schools, the media and society as a whole. The next generation is then likely to repeat the same cycle. Despite progress in securing a number national and international legal standards designed to protect and promote the rights of girls, cultural and social beliefs about gender and the value of girls and boys have been much more difficult to overcome.
In many countries, particularly in South Asia and China, the birth of a boy is something to be celebrated and the birth of a girl a cause for commiseration, particularly where a marriage dowry requires the parents of daughters to make a financial offering. Much of this is to do with the fact that in some cultures, a boy will grow up and look after his parents, while a girl will be married into another family, and is therefore seen as a financial burden to her own parents.
The family is where children first learn about their potential. It is here that millions of girls are socialised to believe that they have a lower social status than boys. Women are themselves the keepers of much of the knowledge passed on to girls and boys in their early years. In order to ensure that girls can access their rights and have the same opportunities as boys, changes of attitude within the family are necessary.
Girls face discrimination in five crucial areas:
• Invisibility. This includes female foeticide, lack of birth registration, and public environments which discourage their visibility and participation.
• Capacity. This affects the ability of girls to benefit from all of their rights. Girls’ capacity can be impaired by educational curricula, which reinforce negative gender stereotyping, and by preferential access to nutrition for boys within the family.
• Physical and mental discrimination. This includes gender based violence and trafficking, temporary marriages, and judgemental attitudes to the sexual activity of girls limiting their access to preventative measures and health services.
• Family and household responsibilities. This includes discrimination caused by lower minimum ages of marriage for girls, and the sexual and economic exploitation of girls in work, in particular child domestic workers.
• Local and national customs and traditions. This includes embedded religious, judicial and secular traditions, which allow for inequality in inheritance and the creation of status offences discriminating against girls in the legal system.
Achieving gender equality and a better deal for girls requires a challenge to deep rooted attitudes across societies, and a new momentum for investing in girls’ education. An ambitious programme in Haryana in India aims to increase the value placed on girls by their families and prevent early marriage. A small sum of money is put into a savings account by local government for each girl at birth. If she is still unmarried at the age of 18, she can collect the amount plus the years of interest.
The Challenges of Adolescence
The social status that a girl occupies has consequences in all areas of a girl’s life, and in particular during her transition from girlhood into womanhood. This is a time of making the choices which will shape the remainder of her life. Education can make a huge difference to the lives of girls, particularly if they have access to quality, free, girl-friendly educational facilities. A host of academic studies, national and international initiatives and projects on the ground have proved the case for girl’s education.
Recent studies show a striking correlation between under-five mortality rates and the educational level attained by a child’s mother.
Progress in this area has been notable – recent progress in enrolments at primary school level has benefited girls in particular.
The reality for millions of girls in some of the world’s poorest countries is that they have to spend much more time on domestic, non-economic work than boys, and have less time for education and recreation. The rites of passage that determine the transition from girlhood to womanhood can themselves be challenging for girls. Female genital cutting and other initiation rites are customs which violates the rights of girls. Marriage while still in her teens, or younger, and early pregnancy usually has a detrimental impact on a girl’s right to education and to fulfilling her potential.
“To stop this inhuman attitude towards girls, there should be stringent laws against the practice of child marriages, and both the governments and the civil societies should initiate awareness raising campaigns at every community on gender equity and the evil consequences of child marriages.” B. Savitha, aged 14, India
The family is the place where girls and boys should feel safe, and where they learn how to grow into mature and responsible adults, where they form their first relationships and hopefully follow the positive role models shown by their parents. But it is also the place where millions of children, especially girls, face violence and abuse. Much of this violence is gender-based and perpetrated mainly by men against girls and women.
As a girl moves into adulthood, her education or lack of it, will have a significant impact on several areas of her life. There is clear evidence that knowledge, information and self esteem help girls to protect themselves from HIV infection, exploitation and hazardous child labour. Her children are more likely to be healthy and to go to school themselves if a young woman is educated. For example, children with unschooled mothers are 4.8 times more likely to be out of primary school in Venezuela, 4.4 times more likely in Suriname, and 3.4 times more likely in Guyana. An educated young woman also has a better chance of earning an income, which has a positive effect on her family and on the economy. Studies have shown that as a country’s primary enrolment rate for girls increases, so too does its gross domestic product per capita.
• Girls are discriminated against in the womb, before birth, as the growing practice of female foeticide and sex selective abortion in some parts of the world demonstrates. An estimated 100 million women are ‘missing’ as a result.
• 10.5 million children die before the age of five every year. There is evidence that more girls than boys die in the developing world.
• An estimated 450 million adult women in developing countries are stunted as a result of childhood protein energy malnutrition.
• Girls are less well-nourished than boys. Girls have more chance of getting diarrhoea than boys.
• Mothers pass on knowledge steeped in their own experiences as girls and women.
• As there is little in the way of enforced protective legislation in many developing countries, millions of girls are subjected to early marriage with its inherent risks to their education, physical health and economic prospects. 60% of girls aged 15-19 in sub Saharan Africa are married.
• It is estimated that about 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital cutting, with an additional two million girls undergoing the procedure every year.
• It is impossible to overstate the links between
health and education, especially women’s education – data shows a striking correlation between under-five mortality rates and the educational level attained by a child’s mother.
• 62 million girls of primary age are out of school. This is more than all the girls in North America and Europe.
• Girls will not remain in school if they are subjected to abuse and violence, and lack adequate sanitation facilities.
• Despite gains for girls in school achievement in the North, women are paid less than men for comparative jobs and are more likely to be in low-paid employment.
• Pregnancy related illnesses are a leading cause of death for young women ages 15 to 19 worldwide. Half a million women die of pregnancy related deaths every year.
• There is clear evidence that girls and boys form clear opinions about work which is deemed suitable for each gender from an early age.
• 90 per cent of child domestic workers are girls between 12 and 17 years old, and are at risk of both sexual and economic exploitation, violence and abuse.
Girls in Exceptionally Difficult Circumstances
• Gender discrimination – in the form of reduced access to education, healthcare, food and information, limited participation in communities and society, and defined roles in the household – means that girls are particularly vulnerable to a series of risks to their development and well-being, and less likely to attain their rights. At times of uncertainty and insecurity, these risks increase.
• 20-50% of girls have experienced violence from a family member.
• Girls from indigenous or minority groups and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse.
From me, Heart:
- This is why we still need a dedicated, committed, purposeful, female-centered feminism which commands all of our time, energy, money and attention, as much as we can spare.
- This is why we need spaces which are female only. As females, girls, women, we have grown up, from the time of our births — however much we have differed from one another, whatever specific experiences we may have been personally spared – either directly experiencing some or all of the above and/or knowing that it is our kind which has been born to, appointed to, experiencing all of the above. The above are the experiences to which females are born in the world. Males are born to a different set of experiences and a different lived reality, again, however individually different males’ lives might be.
- This is why it is not possible for anyone to “change sex.” Changing one’s body or one’s gender presentation does not change any of the above lived experience of femaleness, whether the “sex change” is from male to female or from female to male. The lived experiences and reality remain. The awareness of which group one was born to, and everything which accompanies that awareness, and that reality, remain as well, and with them certain habits, responses, and patterns of relating to boys, to men, to power.
–Heart, enraged over the status of girls in this world and fully committed to devoting the rest of my life to girls and women, female people, my own kind ♥