In Observance of the International Day of the Girl Child
Girls across the world are disproportionately impacted by stereotypes, discrimination, violence and economic disparities. As we become advanced technologically and find new ways to address global disparities (e.g. use of mobile technology to encourage health seeking behaviors), we must remain resolute in our desire to address disparities occurring at the basic and fundamental level of gender, specifically that of young girls–or what is referred to as the “girl child.” As a social psychologist focused mostly on health seeking behaviors, social marketing and health disparities in the United States (which often focuses more on racial, ethnic and economic disparities) I was not all that familiar with the phrase “girl child”. I had seen something previously using the phrase “gild child” in the New York Times, but that was in reference to the novel by Tupelo Hassman about three generations of women who were teenage mothers in a mobile trailer park in Reno, Nevada. The protagonist’s name is Rory, the younger girl who seems destined to have all the same disadvantages in the world that her mother and grandmother had as a result of being women who once had been girls. It does seem that at times being a girl child destines one to lifelong hardship. As a woman who grew up in the South Bronx I think I too could have been labeled as an “heir to the world’s disadvantages.” But as the protagonist’s grandmother exhorts “someone’s got to make it and it has to be you.” That sentiment is echoed in many South Bronx families and others throughout the world. But in order for that someone to make it, there is a need for champions, mentors and advocates. Besides my mother and family, I had some strong female mentors in the school system that helped shepherd me through the system. Although, I readily admit that I never thought of the phrase “girl child”, but definitely rebelled against the nudges I got to learn to cook, clean and sew for my future husband–whoever he should be. But even though I rose above the Girl Child framing and developed resilience, I have not forgotten about the despair in which many of those in such hardship conditions live.
I had the opportunity to attend today the United Nations DPI Briefing at the Salvation Army called “The Girl Child: Protection from Harmful Practices, Violence, Exploitation and Abuse.” The International Day of the Girl Child was being observed for the very first time ever! Canada has been an avid supporter of the issue of the girl child and thus Canada’s Minister for Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, opened the briefing. As she noted this first International Day of the Girl Child is meant to draw attention to the challenges girls around the world face. In Canada there is a national plan to end sex trafficking with a focus on aboriginal women and this month also celebrates women. Hmm, how can we get this focus here in the United States?
A video “To Educate a Girl” was shown about Boral, Nepal where men were carrying brick upon brick on their heads while women were working in the landlord’s fields. The girl narrator was busy digging potatoes and she had no idea what her age was. Because of her work, she doesn’t attend school. She did attend class for five months once while her brother went to the big city (Punjab) and got lost completely, destroying the family. Meanwhile, she was driven to ask “Should I earn or should I study?” She led a very arduous life, at times feeling like a servant for her family.
The film ends with the narrator’s statement “I earn and they eat”. While the film pulled at your emotional heart strings and made you feel for the child, it makes one realize this is not a problem just about gild child rights, but an issue of poverty, food shortages and general economic viability. While we can focus efforts on improving girls’ lives (some cities in Kenya for example, created girls only paths so they could feel safe walking to school), it appears to me there is a need to address the structural barriers and vulnerabilities.
A large focus of the briefing at the United Nations was on child marriage and how disruptive it is to the future prospects of the girl child. Ms. Changu Mannathoko (Senior education Advisor for UNICEF) was quite passionate about the need to bring girls into the conversation themselves and that Girls’ Rights are Human Rights. We need to address the relationships between girls and boys and women and men. Child marriage, she noted, may be seen by many impoverished families collectively as a way to protect the girl child. I think this is an important point to keep in mind when trying to address the worldwide phenomena of child marriage–understanding that psychological, and in their eyes, realistic motivation as one of protection can help one try to create localized programs that provide other means of “protecting” the girl child.
In thinking about these issues and where I am in my professional life, I got to thinking about those children that became orphans as a result of HIV/AIDS. Those girls that perhaps grew up without parents and were raised by their grandmothers, and the expectations that were thrown at them. In the South Bronx of my youth, one of the girls I played with was being raised by her grandmother because her parents had died of AIDS. To this day, I do not know if she too was HIV positive. To many that didn’t matter because she was so cool and likable; while to others that did not matter because she was bearing the stigma of AIDS. At the recent International AIDS Conference held in DC, there was not much talk about children and HIV. There were some youth groups that held motivational workshops that showed the vitality and importance of youth in the HIV/AIDS advocacy field. However, discussions around youths’ access to treatment as prevention and what that would mean in terms of life long regimens was rarely, if ever, discussed at the International AIDS Conference. So, a question I leave with is who will protect the young girl-the girl child– who either has or is impacted by HIV?
One last thing I will note about today’s briefing that makes me wonder about this movement is that the majority of those in attendance were women, particularly older women. In my seating section, where there were roughly 60 people, and only three were men. Where are the men in this conversation? For that matter, where are the younger men in this conversation? We can’t change the environment-at-large if we are only speaking to one half of the world’s population. Men need to be invested in this process as well.
As a former girl child myself, I am happy to see the first ever observance of such a day.Going forward, I hope we can address more cohesively the structural barriers that make acceptability of girls, availability of resources to girls and accessibility to resources for girls a day-to-day challenge.
Let’s make it so that the girl child can EAT and LEARN and meet her full POTENTIAL.