issue 240 - February 1993
SEAN SPRAGUE / PANOS
Girls and girlhood
Time we were noticed
Girls don't exist - or so the experts would have
us believe. Maggie Black puts girls centre stage and urges
us to jettison our gender blinkers.
From pink or blue babywear, through Barbie dolls or football heroes, to fetching water or herding goats, a girl's life and a boy's life are different - wherever they are in the world.
Girls and boys are treated differently, behave differently, and tend to have different likes and dislikes. People may argue over whether the reasons are biological or stem entirely from social conditioning - but one thing is sure, there is a difference.
We are keenly aware of the gender of our children or of those close to us. We may try to avoid stereotypes of what boys are like and girls are like. But androgyny - even in the very young - confuses us. We like to know someone's gender as one of the fundamentals about them which helps us to communicate, to relate.
So why, when it comes to the professional observation of society, are girls and girlhood almost entirely invisible?
The world divides the human race into three species: men, women and children. Within the last category the experts rarely differentiate by sex, designating 'children' only by age - and being gloriously inconsistent even about that. In the Middle Ages childhood was deemed to be over by the age of eight, and in some corners of the world today one might protest it never begins.
According to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, 18 is the outer limit of childhood; yet in many societies, children - especially girl children - are treated as adults in all socially and sexually signif icant ways once they have passed puberty.
The window of expertise on childhood, from Freud to Piaget and Dr Spock, has been largely designed by those interested in physical, cognitive and emotional development at different ages. When it comes to programmes for children, the professionals concentrate on maternal and child health care, social and educational services.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes the point - which most of us would take for granted - that girls and boys have equal rights. But the reality is that in almost every society, girls suffer discrimination in almost every context. Not only do some girls suffer from certain gross abuses of rights - female infanticide and trafficking in parts of Asia or genital mutilation in parts of Africa - but in a petty, repetitive way they are consistently shortchanged. In matters of nurture, play, schooling, leisure time, classroom attention, parental ihvestment, girls are typically disadvantaged compared to boys.
This discovery, when stated, seems so obvious that it is hard to see why it has gone almost unremarked - except when one recalls that discrimination against women used to be so ingrained that it was routinely taken for granted. The situation of girls has, similarly, been invisible because the gender perspective has been left out of the analysis of childhood.
While experts on child psychology, child health, child development, child abuse, child nutrition, child rights, have been extremely active in the past few decades, little of the information they have collected and published is more than superficially gender-conscious.
Discrimination begins early
So what do we know about girl children as opposed to boy children? Let us start at the beginning - with birth. For every 100 girl babies, 105 boys are born. An inbuilt male superiority from day one? No. At all ages in life, including in the womb, the female has a higher survival rate. So nature redresses the balance by providing an extra crop of boys whose chance of system failure around birth is higher than that of girls. Soon after this, the number of girls should outstrip that of boys - unless human interference comes into play.
Such human interference does take place - in some quite extreme forms - in parts of the world where males are valued more highly than females. Until the modern era, preference for sons was virtually universal in every society. It lingers most deeply in those parts of Asia, Northern Africa and the Middle East where women have no role in agricultural or economic production.
This is translated into cultural prejudice which reinforces the desire for - and position accorded to - sons. Even radical social change may not alter things deep down. Male-female equality was a fixed tenet of the Chinese Revolution. Yet when China introduced the one-child policy in 1979, sons were still so much more highly valued that cases of female infanticide began to occur. The authorities had to relax the rule to allow those who bore daughters 'a second chance'.
Female infanticide also continues to be reported in parts of India and Pakistan. And more notorious still has been the use of amniocentesis tests to discover the sex of the child in the womb and have an abortion if the foetus is female. The outrage against such practices among women activists in India and other parts of Asia led to an 'Asian Year of the Girl Child' in 1990.
Much more significant in terms of numbers is the neglect suffered by surviving baby girls. Not until 1986 did the World Health Organization (WHO) set out to compare infant and young child mortality rates by gender. The exercise showed that in South Asia, in the Middle East and in Latin America, girls were less well fed, less likely to be taken to the clinic if sick and more likely to die from childhood disease than boys. This was in spite of their greater biological durability.
Since then more information has been collected about the comparative well-being of girls and boys from infancy onwards, mostly at the initiative of UNICEF. How-ever, the mentality which for so long failed to pose the gender question about young children is only partially reformed. Still today, UNICEF annually publishes all its child survival and child health data without male-female division.
Is this because the data does not exist - because malnutrition cases identified in child-weighing clinics are counted up without breakdown by sex? Does the same apply to doses dispensed of antibiotics, oral rehydration solution, malaria prophylactics, and vaccination jabs? If so, why? And if the perception - or data - is not there for health, nor is it there in other areas. Do studies on the impact of world recession on children mention comparative impacts on boys and girls? Not often. Apparently, as used to be the case with women, gender in childhood is an extra question - not a question integral to every issue.
After the age of five, child health is much less at risk. But other risks take over as both boys and girls take on essential household tasks. In the countryside, they help around the home, boys doing the herding and bird-scaring, girls doing household chores. In the town, mothers and boys go out to earn while girls are left to mind the baby. There are clear gender divisions. Yet analysts of the pre-school child often describe their subjects as miraculously genderless. In the rare cases where data exists, it turns out that girls invariably spend more daily hours than boys on household work.
The same applies when it comes to the kind of work children do to earn money. The two types of lens used to scrutinize child labour are 'children in the workplace' and 'children on the streets'. And - surprise, surprise - in both cases the territory of work is defined by boys and occupied by boys. There are some girls, yes. But girls are not usually sent out to earn, so many have run away from home. Most occupations belong to boys. Paper-gluing girls, taxi-fare girls, metalworker girls are virtually non-existent. With a few exceptions, boys get the higher status work and better pay. Thus girls, like women, are relegated to the most marginal work - flower-selling, rag-sorting - with the least pickings.
Also invisible are the girls whose life is spent minding house and infants so that mothers and brothers as well as fathers can go out and earn. And a vast number of girl children are in domestic service outside their own homes. In India alone there are said to be 100 million child servants. In Haiti five per cent of those aged 5-18, or 109,000 children, mainly girls, are given by impoverished parents to affluent homes where they work round the clock for nothing. These restaveks (from reste avec) are terribly exploited, but millions of others are in a similar position.
Sexual abuse of girl domestics is commonplace - and if discovered often leads to dismissal, the streets and prostitution.
The figures on the trafficking of young girls in the sex trade are horrifying but hard to pin down: one million worldwide is quoted. Ages quoted are most shocking of all. An operation by the US Navy Investigation Bureau in Olongapo City, Phillppines, found four-year-olds being sold for sex to US sailors. Reliable reports describe the sale of seven-year-old Burmese girls into sex slavery in Thailand's brothels. The threat of AIDS has worsened their vulnerability: the younger the girl, the less likely she is to carry HIV - though she is not less likely to contract it. Some belief systems actually hold that sex with a young virgin will free a man of sexually-transmitted disease. Cases of Asian girl babies with syphilis are not unheard of.
In the rich world we may shudder and congratulate ourselves that this kind of exploitation is largely a thing of the past. But right inside the domestic hearth we find more invidious abuse, long stifled by taboo: incest. Figures vary depending on what is a 'child', what is 'abuse', and whether the fondlings of a stepfather constitute 'incest'. When 'abuse' includes everything from petting to penetration and rape, one in four pre-pubescent girls in North America and Europe are thought to have been abused - twice the number of boys. There are no figures for developing countries but runaway girls often cite sexual abuse as a reason for leaving home.
Here, though, we may be surprised that the proportion of boys is not smaller. So attuned are we to the assumption that girls are the most frequent victims that we may be engaged in reverse discrimination. And do we know about the comparative impact of abuse on boys and girls? Hardly at all - because the questions are rarely asked.
The one area where we do have good gender information is in education. This is because the school is the place in which a country's productive human resource is being shaped and its output is economically significant. Much has been written about the developing world's 'educational gender gap'. The 1990 World Conference on Education for All at Jomtien, Thailand, made a great fuss about bringing girls into school. Some progress - new funds, new projects - is being made. The disappointing aspect is that the case made for educating girls almost always concerns their future as mothers: educated women means fewer babies and healthier children, so the argument goes. Their rights and opportunities as girls or as prospective adults in a non-mothering context are rarely cited by the female education enthusiasts.
In the Western world, the educational battleground over gender has shifted with the advent of universal schooling. In classrooms in UK and North America, studies find that in mixed schools, the standards of excellence being applied are often heavily male-biased, and that the rowdier, more demanding boys manage to gain the lion's share of teacher's attention. Girls seem to do better academically in single-sex schools where a girl's universe is never limited by a boy's 'superior' claim. The Girl Guides Associations around the world stoutly maintain that the absence of boys asserting themselves around the campfife, on the cliff-face, in the canoe, gives girls a freer environment in which to develop selfesteem and confidence.
As she grows up the schoolgirl becomes the adolescent - a girl-woman. But she is still a child according to legal convention, which ignores menarche as the passage to adulthood. This is absurd in any society, more so in some. In devout Muslim families from Bahrain to Bangladesh it is normal to marry off a daughter once she has menstruated. And a married girl is a woman: in many languages it is difficult even to say 'married girl' because the words imply 'married virgin'.
Some countries are making an effort to raise the legal marriage age. But the giving of Asian girls to men two and three times their age is still commonplace. And girl marriage is not mentioned in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, even though in the many cases where the girl's consent was neither sought nor given, it qualifies as slavery according to the international convention on contemporary forms of servitude.
Statistics on teenage marriages and pregnancies belong in the 'maternity' category. By some ageist osmosis, motherhood even in a 12-year-old is a woman's issue. Who talks of children having babies? Yet pregnancy before age 15 is extremely risky: 25 per cent of the world's maternal deaths are among teenagers.
On the verge of adulthood, we still omit the obvious need for gender awareness: teenagers, adolescents, youth - the words are all genderless. Yet the passage into adulthood is very different for the two sexes in every way: timing, physical and psychological change, and social implications. A US report on the invisibility of girls in educational analysis states that early adolescence is particularly difficult for girls: 'Moving from "young girl" to "young woman" involves meeting unique demands in a culture that both idealizes and exploits the sexuality of young women while assigning them roles that are clearly less valued than male roles'. Correspondingly, they suffer loss of self-esteem: among white high-school students, only 29 per cent of girls are 'happy the way I am', compared to 46 per cent of boys.
In recent years research has confirmed the view expressed exactly two centuries ago by Mary Wollstonecraft that social rather than biological factors fix girls in 'feminine' and boys in 'masculine' roles. The effect on the modern women's movement and parenting ideas has been profound. If women's persistent sense of inferiority to men is instilled around the potty stage, they argue, then efforts must start at the earliest moment to avoid repeating unhelpful stereotypes about male and female roles and behaviours. Girls must witness Mummy mending the car; boys must see Daddy crying into the washing-up. Girls as young as two must own their bodies: no kisses for grannie on demand. Stories and nursery rhymes have been reconstructed: Little Red Riding Hood kills the wolf; the Princess slays the dragon; girls join football teams and boys take up knitting and embroidery.
Some of this effort to mix up roles goes so far as to imply that we should forget about gender. Quite the opposite is needed. We must notice where prejudices based on gender are operating - especially when hidden. Commentators have recently begun to point out that the culture of childhood and the culture of youth - because girls are so unnoticed - are essentially male. Judgments about 'success' are usually based on male performance criteria, whether we are talking about the weight of the baby or leadership capacity in the sixth form. Efforts to submerge gender may end up by supporting the status quo, leaving patriarchal values intact. And they are bound to reinforce the invisibility of girls and girl-hood. They deny an independent girl reality and conflict with the need to be more gender-conscious, not less, in the ways society observes and describes the experiences of childhood.
Girls are not just women-to-be. They have rights of their own. In Amsterdam in 1992, the first international conference on girlhood was convened by a group of women academics who felt that the time has come to consider whether girls' studies should be launched as a sub-set of women's studies. Representatives from both North and South were there. They called their conference Alice in Wonderland. Let us hope that Alice is left to languish in Wonderland no longer, that this event is a sign that she is about to burst through the looking-glass and shed her invisibility for ever.
This special report appeared in the girls and girlhood: time we were noticed issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.