By Hira Akhtar
“Beta! Wo larka hai, larkiyan aisey nahi karti..”
“Stop crying like a girl..”
“Kiya larkiyon ki tarah ghar par baithey ho, go & play outside.”
Sounds familiar? I’m sure many of us can relate to this very thing. Endless statements, but all of these are built on the same purpose; to instill within both a girl & a boy how a boy is and always will be superior to a girl. Despite coming from educated families, we all are a part of this less accepted but real discrimination between a girl child and a boy child.
While children all over the world face different forms of adversities in this modern era, girls in particular are subjected to discrimination and coercion for the sole reason of being a girl. Statistics from United Nations, multiple reports & researches conducted by different institutions show that girls are more impoverished than boys, receiving lesser health-care facilities and lesser exposure to literacy.
For a girl, in some cases, discrimination starts as early as she is conceived. An ultrasound & a surgical process is all it takes to stop her from entering this world, all done in the hope of a heir, a boy child.
In developing countries like Pakistan, if a boy is born, it calls for huge or small-scale celebrations depending on the family’s circumstances. A son means insurance; he will be the one inheriting the property, the one who will be supporting the parents in their old age (ironically, this rarely happens). Whereas when a girl is born, she is seen as a liability, an expense to be paid. The reaction to her birth is totally contrary to what would otherwise have been if she were a boy. Sad, isn’t it?
A girl faces discrimination through her childhood and into the adulthood. Her pitiful status is reflected from the fact that she is denied fundamental needs & rights. This discrimination comes in various forms including but not limited to: early marriages, a preference for sons, domestic violence, honor killing, sexual exploitation, less food, less access to education… you name it. These practices are more often observed in the rural areas, but that does not disqualify urban areas from being a part of it. The reasons are numerous & can be summed up in social, political & male dominant perspectives.
How can a girl not feel inferior when everything surrounding her tells her that she is unwanted or less worthy than her brother? She is forced to live like a second-rate child when her family & the society limit her opportunities to grow to her full potential. This inferior child gradually accepts that life will never be any different. Though many families of Pakistan are matriarchal, still male dominance in our society is perceptible.
Tragically, female children are the ones who suffer the most being defenseless against this trauma of discrimination. Following are some bleak instances of what these little girls face all around the developing world:
Third world countries are full of destitute families who see a girl child as a financial predicament. This attitude leads to pervasive negligence of baby girls in Asia, Africa and South America. In many parts of the world, it’s a standard practice to breastfeed daughters for less time than sons so that mothers can get expectant again with a baby boy as early as possible. As a consequence, girls are denied a fundamental right of life-giving nutrition during the phase of their growth, which reduces their development and weakens their immune system.
The neglecting attitudes continue as the girls grow up. Not much is changed as they grow into women.
The perils of physical harm follow a girl right through her life. Women of every society are in danger of abuse. But the menace is more brutal for girls and women living in communities where their rights just about mean nothing. Mothers who do not get their own rights have little to offer to their daughters. The increasing rate of rape and vicious attacks against women of the developing world is shocking. In cultures like ours, the physical and emotional trauma of rape comes with another stigma. If a girl steps out of limits by choosing her own life partner or in quest of divorce from an abusive or obnoxious partner, she is thought to have brought disgrace to her family and should be punished.
Families in the rural areas of Pakistan commit honor killings to safeguard their reputation ruined by rebellious women.
Dreadfully, this noncompliance includes rape. In 1999 in Pakistan, a 16 year old mentally handicapped girl was raped and brought before the tribe’s legal counsel. Although she had been the victim and her rapist was arrested, the council decided she was the one who brought humiliation to the tribe and ordered to execute her in public. The case received a lot of hype at that time but sadly this is not an unusual case. Each day, 3 girls become a victim of honor killings in Pakistan including rape victims.
For the girls who get away from these pitfalls and grow up in a better way, life is still unbelievably tough. School is just an opportunity for some years, but most of the girls are dropped out at the age of 9 or 10 when they are able to perform the household chores. According to UNICEF, 9 million more girls than boys skip school every year. While the brothers go to classes or practice their hobbies and play games, girls help mothers in the daily house work.
The daily household chores include different kinds of physical labor. In some areas, a girl has to walk several miles to bring water to her family. She has to clean her house, grind corn, tend to the fields and crops, and prepare meals. She collapses worn out every night to wake up the next day to start another tiring work day. Women’s struggles go unnoticed, even when it is vital for the survival of her family.
When a girl is born, it causes great turmoil for underprivileged families. While there is hardly enough food to live on, the family can’t tolerate the weight of giving dowry to their daughter. Because of the ill-practice of dowry, people look at girls as a drain on their monetary resources.
Even if the family manages to put together some dowry for their daughter, the newly-wed bride is at the mercy of her in-laws if they decide her dowry is too little. According to an estimate done by UNICEF, around 5000 women get killed each year in incidents related to dowry.
Initiatives to eliminate Discrimination between a girl and a boy child:
This issue has been taken up seriously in other parts of the world. Desperate measures and initiatives have been developed, some of which include:
- “Meena”, an initiative by UNICEF developed in coordination with Pakistan, India, Bangladesh & Nepal utilizes a cartoon character named Meena as a role-model for little girls. This cartoon series talks about gender discrimination & raises issues such as unfair treatment of girls in the family, and less access to health and education.
- Botswana, Mexico, Greece, Turkey and Oman have established programs for developing socialization skills among girls and boys, including equal human rights for women.
- China, Ghana, Albania, Moldova, Cuba, Italy, and Vietnam are among the countries that have made new initiatives & laws to safeguard the rights of girl children.
- Iran, Indonesia, India, Italy, Nigeria, Nepal, and Uganda are those countries that organize public advocacy campaigns for promoting girls’ rights.
- Italy, Grenada, Singapore & Nigeria have put in place institutional mechanisms for promoting the rights of girl child.
Women’s status is crucial to the health of a society; if one part suffers, so does the whole. What needs to be realized is that effective measures should be taken up here in Pakistan as well. Apart from spreading awareness through “Meena”, strong initiatives should be developed to prevent this discrimination against girl child from womb to tomb.
Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General once said:
“Short-changing girls is not only a matter of gender discrimination; it is bad economics and bad societal policy. Experience has shown, over and over again, that investment in girls’ education translate directly and quickly into better nutrition for the whole family, better health care, declining fertility, poverty reduction and better overall economic performance”.
Research conducted in Pakistan reveal that girls are the poorest with reference to their income & property. Despite all the initiatives taken by the government of Pakistan & other non-governmental bodies, she is still struggling for development since 50 years.
Education: Breaking the norms of Gender Discrimination
Education is the key that can break the stereotypes and gender discrimination. It can bring long lasting changes for women in countries like Pakistan. Educated women can end gender bias, starting by eliminating or reducing poverty that makes discrimination worse in the developing countries. Education increases chances of better paying jobs for girls and women. For as long as a girl stays in school, her chances of pursuing better employment, greater opportunities to grow and a life without difficulties increase.
Girls who are able to get education usually end up getting married later; they have healthier children and are more likely to fight for their children’s rights. According to UN’s estimates, for each year that a girl child spends in school, the risk of premature death of her child is reduced by 8 percent.
Her education also brings about a positive change in society. Women who get the opportunity to go to school and high-level jobs gain status in their societies. This status empowers them to influence their families and surroundings.
How to help?
We can help in pulling down the obstacles that keep girls from going to school. We can help bring change for girls & women in developing countries. The best solution is to provide financial aid to poor families to eliminate the poverty that forces them to take their children out of school. Many organizations worldwide are working to provide healthy and stable lifestyle to families in developing countries. With a little encouragement and practical help, girls will be encouraged to enroll and stay in school.
We also need to raise awareness about girls’ rights in the developing countries. We need to make sure that little girls are given the same privileges as boys. All NGOs and other government or non-government bodies working for girls’ rights need resources to fund their efforts. As educated beings, we can help to change the lives of women in our country and all over the world by making financial contributions, no matter big or small. Even a little contribution goes a long way. Volunteering to the efforts already put in place by the organizations can be another way of helping in this cause.
The very need is dire but though the barriers to end this discrimination are high, they are not insurmountable.