Just Because I am a Girl


Just Because I am a Girl

In our part of the world, it is not uncommon to see parents raise sons and daughters using very different approaches and with very different expectations. When it comes to family, society, workplace and tradition, the two genders each have their strengths and limitations. Though there have been persistent calls for gender equality, it seems that both genders are sitting on two ends of a seesaw, unable to find a way to attain parity.

Attaining Gender Equality

The definition of gender equality may vary, but according to the UN Women, gender equality refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of the two genders, and that equality will not depend on whether they are born male or female. It implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration and their diversity is recognised. Therefore, gender equality is not only an issue for women, but one that should also concern and fully engage men. It is also an issue of human rights and sustainable people-centred development.

Girls and women may suffer discrimination based on different factors, including gender, age, family status, marital status, ability, income, HIV status, religion, indigenous status, immigration status, nationality, caste, ethnicity and geography. These factors often intersect with one another and create greater disadvantage for girls and women.

The United Nations initiated a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, laying down targets concerning the vision of global sustainable development to be met in 15 years and their clear indicators. Goal 5 states “achieve gender equality and empower women and girls”. As of 2017, progress has been made by ending all practices harmful to women, including child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). In 2000, one in every three girls aged between 20 and 24 was married before turning 18. In 2015, the ratio became just over one in four. As for FGM, while statistics have shown a 24% decline since 2000, the UN states that data from 2015 still show more than one in every three girls aged between 15 and 19 in 30 countries have undergone the cruel procedure. Much is still to be done.

Substantial advances have been made to eliminate gender disparities in education over the past 15 years or so. One of the only significant disparities lies in primary out-of-school rates, as 5 million primary school-aged girls more than boys are currently out of school. In recent years, the increasingly intense military conflicts have also made girls and women more vulnerable than males to sexual violence and early forced marriage.

While we are glad to see progress being made towards gender equality, it must not be forgotten that girls still need us to advocate for their rights and speak out against violence until gender equality finally becomes a reality. Since 2012, the UN has been observing the International Day of the Girl Child annually on 11 October to raise global awareness on the needs and challenges that confront girls, to promote empowerment of girls and to exercise their rights. It is our hope that no girl will ever have her basic rights stripped away just because she is a girl.

The Problem of Early Marriage

In 1962, the United Nations Human Rights Council called on all contracting states of the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages to determine a minimum age for marriage through legislation, and to completely abolish child marriage. By definition, child marriage is a legal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are children under the age of 18. While the practice is illegal in most countries, relevant laws are not always enforced strictly, meaning that many girls remain trapped.

According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2017, the countries with the highest rates of child marriage (counted among women aged between 20 and 24 in 2017) are Niger, Central African Republic, Chad, Bangladesh and Mali. In Niger, a staggering 76% of girls are victims of child marriage, while nearly 70% of the girls in neighbouring Chad and Mali suffer the same fate. Bangladesh, with a rate of close to 60%, is the highest-ranked country in the Asia Pacific region. Most of the 25 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are also affected by conflict or natural disasters, which significantly increases the likelihood of child marriage among vulnerable children, especially girls.

But just why do girls become victims of child marriage? Why would parents allow such a thing to happen to their girls without considering their well-being?

  • Poverty
    Poverty is both a main cause and consequence of early marriage. Girls are often seen as financial burdens for their families, and marrying them off usually provides a bride price for the family. For parents with multiple children or living in extreme poverty, this would help alleviate their desperate economic conditions. However, these child brides, lacking skills and knowledge, very often can only depend on their husbands and remain trapped in poverty.

  • Tradition
    In certain societies, a girl is seen as mature once her menstruation starts, and thus making her ready for marriage and motherhood. She is also viewed as more submissive, allowing the man to maintain his dominance in the family.

  • Protection
    In many communities, parents believe that it is in the best interest of the girl to be protected by her husband. Some parents worry that their daughters going through puberty may engage in premarital sex, and as this would bring immense shame to the family if an unmarried girl becomes pregnant, parents tend to marry their daughters off earlier, in the name of protecting the girls’ purity and defending the honour of the family. In conflict-affected or socially unstable communities, parents may even see child marriage as a sensible way of keeping their girls safe, because a girl taken as a wife should be better protected by her husband against sexual assault and other forms of violence in a refugee camp or settlement.

Early marriage not only deprives children of their childhood, but also massively affects their physical and mental development. For girls who are yet to fully mature biologically, becoming pregnant and giving birth can be a major health risk for both themselves and their babies that is potentially fatal. According to the World Health Organisation, about 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day. Among all age groups, adolescent girls under the age of 15 face the greatest risk of maternal mortality. In many developing countries, complications in pregnancy and childbirth is a leading cause of death among adolescent girls.

Dropping Out of School

After getting married, girls are forced to drop out of school as they begin to have children and take up more responsibilities at home. However, it should be a fundamental right for all children, regardless of gender, to receive an education. Both boys and girls should be allowed to develop and equip themselves in order to explore and fulfil their potential. Yet, 15 million girls of primary-school age will never get the chance to set foot in a primary school, compared to 10 million boys.

Whether girls get to receive an education very much affects the future of society, as they are the ones who raise the next generation. It is simple logic, but, due to various reasons and traditions, not all girls are able to enjoy universal education. It is therefore necessary for governments, development agencies and civil groups to continue to strive for universal education. After all, providing all girls with access to education is a moral responsibility that none can deny. Education for girls can even benefit sustainable development in societies and nations, including:

  • Poverty eradication
  • Slower population growth
  • Lower infant mortality rate
  • Lower maternal mortality rate
  • Fewer child marriages and adolescent pregnancies
  • Lower malnutrition rate among children
  • Higher school enrolment rate among children
  • Higher food production

Regardless of gender, all of us can play a part in achieving gender equality, giving this generation of boys and girls an opportunity to enjoy equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities.

The Story of a Victim of Child Marriage, in Her Own Words

I am almost 13 now. Before ISIS arrived, I used to go to school in Mosul. I liked everything about school: studying, playing, friends… My favourite friend was Raja. We played together and she taught me many things, like maths and Arabic.

Life was good. I used to play with other girls and have fun. But after ISIS arrived, my father said I should stay at home, because there was a war and he would not have had enough money to take me to hospital if I were shot.

Amai was married off to a man older than her father when she was just 11. “If I had a daughter, I would never let her marry young,” she says.

I felt really bad especially after I lost my mum. I was 11 years old when I was forced to get married. My husband was even older than my father. He treated me really badly and would beat me and curse me. I was his second wife and his first wife helped me. When he was going to beat both of us, she would help me to hide.

After marriage, my husband said he would fight for ISIS, and I said I would get a divorce if he did. He did join them, so I left him and fled home to my father and step-mother. When Mosul was retaken, he left ISIS and fled to Turkey with his first wife. I am still not officially divorced, because when I went to the ISIS court, they told us to return in one month, but by then we had left Mosul.

It has been two months since we arrived at the camp. I go to the Child Friendly Space whenever I can. I feel happy when I go there, especially when they teach us to do crafts. My teachers are very good, they love me and I love them.

I feel good when I talk to Taysir (a World Vision social worker) about my marriage. I feel like I’m getting rid of all my bad emotions. There was a balloon exercise in life skills class when we inflated a balloon and discussed how to protect it. Then the teachers told us how we can protect ourselves, about hygiene and how to feel free of our negative feelings so that we can relax.

I think I have changed and improved. In the beginning I was really sad, but now I feel better and more relaxed, not sad. I want to be a teacher in the future so I can help other children.

If someone proposes to me, I will say no. I was really hurt in the first marriage. If I had a daughter, I would never let her marry young.

Amai (Iraq)

A Nurse Who Escaped Child Marriage

World Vision helped Vinita enrol in an auxiliary nurse and midwife course. Not only did she escape the fate of child marriage, she also realised her dream of becoming a nurse.

Vinita was only 17 when her parents decided to get her married. She had always dreamed of attending college at Lalitpur, a city 30 km away from her village, yet her parents did not share the same dream. Her mother never went to school and her father had dropped out in the eighth grade. Vinita seemed destined to follow her parents’ path: getting married early and working in the paddy fields all her life, like most people from her village. Here, girls were not encouraged to acquire an education because it was harder for an educated girl to find a groom.

Vinita wanted to study a two-year auxiliary nurse and midwife course. “My parents were planning to get me married, I was 17 back then. At that time World Vision staff talked to my parents and told them they would send me to a nurse training school [in Lucknow],” she says. At first, her parents were reluctant to let her go alone.

Vinita was a sponsored child for 14 years, which is why World Vision has been following her academic performance. Vinita eventually completed the course and returned to Lalitpur to work in a children’s hospital. “My happiest day at work was when a weak baby was brought to the hospital and we could help. He was bleeding from the nose and mouth, and his parents had given up hope of saving him. But we tried and were able to heal him. Now he is 5 years old. It gives me so much pleasure to realise that he survived because of our efforts,” she joyfully recalls.

“Today I have become a nurse and World Vision helped me a lot. If they had not supported my education, I would not be here and my siblings would not have had the opportunity to study.” In her village, all women work in the fields and there are no job opportunities for the educated. She was the first in the family to go to college. Every month, she comes home once or twice to see her parents, while all her childhood friends are married. “Here this is normal. What can we do?” Had she stayed back, she would most likely have met the same fate.

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