Aminata Palmer is an unusual 13-year-old. Born and brought up in Sierra Leone, she joined the Children’s Forum Network, a campaigning group run by children for children, thinking that it would give her an opportunity to use her acting skills in drama workshops. Instead, she found herself talking to street girls who had been raped. ‘We ask them how they feel and they tell us. Then we go back to our network and sit as a group and make plans on what should be done. We take them to the leaders and make sure that something is done.’
Aminata’s particular passion is for the rights of girls: ‘In Sierra Leone boys are seen to be more important than girls. If a woman gives birth to a boy, it is celebrated with great joy. On the other hand, if it is a girl, it is still celebrated but not as greatly. This is because girls are seen as a burden added to the family, which is why a girl who is still a child will be married off to a man older than her father.’
A new report by Plan International, Because I am a Girl, supports Aminata’s thesis on a global scale. Despite all the talk of girl power, millions of girls are getting a raw deal. An estimated 100 million women are ‘missing’ due to female foeticide and the growing practice of sex-selective abortion, according to the report. Baby girls are often fed less than their brothers. Meanwhile, 62 million girls are still denied primary schooling, despite commitments to girls’ education in the Millennium Development Goals. Millions of girls, like those Aminata refers to in Sierre Leone, are married at an early age, risking not only their education but their health and future prospects. Half a million women, more than 50 per cent of them under 19, are lost unnecessarily to pregnancy-related deaths each year.
Graça Machel, President of the Foundation for Community Development, says: ‘In today’s world, to discriminate on the basis of sex and gender is morally indefensible, and politically and socially unsupportable.’ Governments have signed international declarations like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. But national laws to protect girls’ rights, even if they exist, are often not implemented. ‘We must hold our decision-makers accountable,’ says Ms Machel.
Aminata would agree. She wants to reach the highest levels with her message that discrimination against girls has to stop. Two years ago she met Gordon Brown, now Britain’s Prime Minister, at the G8 summit in Scotland. ‘I asked him what he was doing for girls. When I meet him at this summer’s G8 summit, I am going to say: “Why haven’t you done anything since we last met?”’ Even Gordon Brown might find himself at a loss for words, faced with such a feisty opponent. And girls certainly need a few more advocates like Aminata.Nikki van der Gaag