By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
“Girls aren’t boys, so they don’t play with cars,” a girl from the Dominican Republic told researchers from the PLAN International organization. Repeating what she has heard from her earliest days, she added, “Girls should play with dolls and pots and pans.”
“Young women have to be pretty to be bank executives,” explained a young Vietnamese woman who feels disadvantaged by her height at not quite 5’3.”
A girl who was raped in a Ugandan village has not been seen around the village since because the villagers began to make fun of her after the attack became known.
Boys and girls do not always have happy lives and reality can sometimes be cruel: children are more vulnerable to illness, abandonment during wars and conflicts, and food scarcity, for example. But it is even worse for girls. “Not only are they overloaded with domestic chores, but they must deal with early pregnancy and sexual, psychological, and physical violence,” notes Emma Puig de la Bellacasa, regional advisor for PLAN Gender Equality Programs.
Let us stop and think a minute about our childhood and adolescence. As soon as our sex is known, we are assigned roles (Mom’s little helper, Princess), colors (“hyper-feminine” pink), and expectations (submissive wife and mother, of course). We confront other worries and fears as we grow older. For example, does a teenage boy think about catcalls and being touched when walking down the street or taking a bus? Is a boy taught to “sit like a gentleman”?
UN Women articulates these concerns in its statements: girls suffer discrimination at every life stage and being denied their rights and basic needs translates into tangible phenomena like “a preference for boys, early marriage, genital mutilation, domestic violence, incest, sexual exploitation, less food, and limited access to education.”
Studies carried out by PLAN —the most recent called “Because I am a Girl: State of the World’s Girls 2014”— reveal a very disturbing reality: girls do not just suffer violence at home or in public —as was already known— “but at the hands of teachers and fellow students at school,” explains Puig.
This means that the only place that could make a significant difference in the lives of women can also be a place of danger, further limiting the development of their capacities. This makes it even more obvious that we must make it a priority to protect and recognize the rights of girls if we want a world with equal opportunity.
Focus on Gender and Rights
At the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China in 1995, it was clear that girls suffered “ongoing discrimination.” Three years later, the UN Commission on the Status of Women recommended adopting measures to prevent child prostitution and the sale of girls, and passing laws to allow pregnant girls and teen mothers to continue their education.
In 2000, 189 United Nations member countries adopted a series of goals for 2015, including extreme poverty eradication, universal primary education, gender equality, improved maternal health, reduced infant mortality, and fighting HIV, among other aims. While there has been significant progress, the UN report “Gender and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Progress for Women and Girls” shows that progress has been uneven, “especially for women and girls.”
Let us look at access to education. The report notes that the adjusted net rate of school enrollment increased from 83% in 2000 to 90% in 2011, but “the likelihood of girls attending school is lower in groups of both primary and secondary school children.”
And what about maternal health? While the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births has dropped nearly 50% in twenty years, the goal is a decrease of 75%; this challenge entails “urgent action and greater political support for women and children.” Something similar occurs with the “unmet need for family planning”; although there has been progress in meeting this need, some 140 million women who would like to postpone or prevent pregnancy have no access to these services. In fact, the disadvantage of being born a woman is glaring in this respect, since the UN estimates that, should current trends continue, “this is likely to be the last goal achieved,” because it requires governments to recognize the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls.
As we can see, it is not easy being born a girl. Puig sheds light on a reality that brings the problem closer to home: “We think of early marriage as being limited to Africa, but there is a high percentage of early marriages in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua,” notes the expert. In turn, “there is a strong correlation between these marriages and sexual violence: girls who get pregnant are often married off to their attackers, generally older men,” she adds.
An example provided by Deika Nieto, an attorney and president of the Panamanian Family Planning Association (APLAFA), shows that Panama is not free of these discriminatory customs: the minimum legal age for marriage in this country is fourteen for girls, but sixteen for boys. As Nieto notes, this makes no sense, since children are considered minors until the age of seventeen.
“This has many consequences: girls’ futures are limited by slotting them into the role of wife and mother,” emphasizes the president of APLAFA. “There is also another problem: while there are regulations governing continuing education for pregnant girls, there is no effective implementation of the regulations due to strong resistance from educators,” she states.
How can we deal with these prejudices, risks, and limitations? Puig is adamant that the answer lies in education. “Our strategy is to ensure that all girls have access to education. While girls generally attend primary school, many drop out of secondary school […]” because they face obstacles that are difficult to overcome.
This is why training is essential for female children and teenagers. As a 16-year-old girl in Alexandria (Egypt) said: “The leadership training I received was decisive in my life. Now I have the courage to speak out in public. I know my rights as a girl and I know how to defend and exercise my rights.”
Or, as a Central American girl said: “It is important to feel we are not alone. Sharing spaces and planning actions together gives us the strength to continue.”
Emma Puig de la Bellacasa, regional advisor for the UN PLAN Gender Equality Programs, answers a few questions.
How does PLAN deal with the reluctance of certain countries and governments to provide sexual and reproductive information in schools?
This subject generates a lot of controversy and I think all countries have gone through this. We think it is important for girls to understand their bodies and know how to prevent pregnancy. At the same time, we provide young boys with male role models and do workshops on equality so that they will become agents of change.
The topics of teen pregnancy and access to education are also contentious for some governments. How do you address official oppression such as removing pregnant girls from schools even if the law protects them?
This happens in all countries. Pregnant girls are not allowed to attend school, sometimes prevented by the teachers or by other parents, because they think that other students will follow suit. We have a regional strategy for preventing teen pregnancy, and we are developing mechanisms for coordination with governments.
How much of an impact have you had?
The Millennium Goals were established in 2000. There has been progress, but there are still many difficulties. What we are doing with organizations like PLAN International is setting future goals —the Post-2015 Development Goals— that will address the problems of childhood and stress the realities of being a girl. We want to ensure action in favor of girls. Last year, PLAN managed to put this on the United Nations’ agenda.