New Internationalist

Because I am a girl… How young women’s rights are being ignored

Issue 405

In the age of girl power, it is easy to think that girls are now equal to boys. But a recent report has revealed that this is not the case. Nikki van der Gaag, who wrote the report, reveals how, in many countries around the world, girls are still discriminated against, abused, and treated as second-class citizens – just because they are girls.

Brenda was born in March 2007 in a village in El Salvador.

She was born at home, with no midwife, and has been ill since birth with diarrhoea and a chronic chest infection.

Brenda is one of a cohort of girls chosen as part of a study for a global report, Because I am a Girl: the State of the World’s Girls 2007, published by Plan International.1 Her mother, Adina, is only 14 herself. She comes from a very poor family, and has had only a few years of primary education. She already has one child, Caterin, who is three years old and was born when Adina was 11.

Brenda’s case is not unusual. She is having a tough time because she was born to a mother who was still a child herself. She comes from a poor rural family who live in a country with few resources. But her chances in life are limited still more, simply because she is a girl.

That such discrimination still exists against girls and young women is surprising because for at least 20 years national and international legislation has banned gender discrimination and women have campaigned for equal rights with men for themselves and for their daughters and granddaughters.

Things have improved as a result. In some countries, girls are doing better than boys at school and see themselves as equal to their brothers. Many young women today believe they are capable of doing anything a boy can do – and better. The reality as they grow up, however, is likely to be rather different. Even in the North, though many things have changed, women are still not equal to men; they are paid less and they hold fewer positions of power.

Second-class citizens

In the majority of the world, women are still seen as second-class citizens, and young women and girls particularly so; the property of their fathers until they are married and of their husbands after they have tied the knot. The more patriarchal a society, the more sons are preferred. One report notes that:

‘While a number of national and international legal norms protect the rights of the girl child in theory, in practice cultural and social beliefs about gender and the value of girls and boys have been much more difficult to overcome… By age five, most girls and boys have already internalized the gender role expectations communicated to them by their families, schools, the media and society as a whole, and these norms will influence their behaviour and their development for the rest of their lives.’

Perhaps this is not surprising. These attitudes go back a long way – one verse from the Chinese Book of Songs, written 3,000 years ago, says:

‘When a son is born,
Let him sleep on the bed,
Clothe him with fine clothes,
And give him jade to play…
When a daughter is born,
Let her sleep on the ground,
Wrap her in common wrappings,
And give broken tiles to play…’

In many countries today, the birth of a boy is still something to be celebrated and the birth of a girl a cause for commiseration. This can have serious consequences for their human rights, sometimes, paradoxically, assisted by advances in technology. Although it is often technically illegal, families that prefer to have male children are able to abort their female foetuses now that technology can tell them the sex of their unborn child. In Asia, at least 60 million women are missing due to sex-selective abortion and the practice of killing or abandoning girl babies.

Once they are born, girl babies are likely to be fed less than their brothers when food is short, leading to a permanent cycle of anaemia and under-nourishment. They are also less likely to go to school. As a result, 62 per cent of illiterates between the ages of 15 and 24 are young women. And this despite the fact that research has shown that an educated woman not only has a better chance of earning an income, but is more likely to keep her children healthy and send them to school.

As they grow up, many young women find they cannot choose when they have sex, or who they have it with, or under what conditions. More than 70,000 teenage girls, some as young as 10, are married every day, and 14 million girls under 18 are already mothers. As a result of giving birth before their bodies have finished growing, pregnancy and the complications of childbirth are the leading cause of death for young women aged between 15 and 19. In sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of 15-19 year olds newly infected with HIV are female.

Because they are physically the weakest of what is considered the ‘weaker sex’, younger women are also in danger of assault and rape. Nearly 50 per cent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls under 15. And the rise of religious fundamentalism over the last few years, underpinned sometimes by extreme conservatism when it comes to women’s rights, has led not only to the undermining of women’s rights, but to increasing numbers of young women murdered by their relatives for supposedly infringing a family code of ‘honour’. Young women like Banaz Mahmood, aged 20, who was killed in London in January 2006 by her father, uncle and a family associate because they disapproved of her boyfriend. Her body was found three months later in a suitcase buried in a pit in Birmingham.

Girls’ voices

Girls and young women speak out…

‘Girl power is about being yourself, sticking up for your rights, and not being afraid of the challenges the world throws at you.’
Girl, 17, Canada

‘I don’t want to get married and have children, at least not anytime soon… I want to work and study. I don’t want to be like another girl I know who is 13 years old and already pregnant.’
Girl, 13, Venezuela

‘I never ever understand why boys and girls are not equal to each other. In rural areas elders think that girls are born to give birth and to marry and for cleaning the house. Girls who live in rural areas… are not sent to schools. Their parents are not aware of the changing world yet.’
Girl, 15, Turkey

‘The young boy is privileged to have good education, while the girls go to fetch water from streams. One often sees them with big basins of water on their heads to fetch water while the boys play football forgetting that they need water to take a bath. “After all,” they say, “why worry when God has blessed us with one or more sisters to relieve us of this task”.’
Girl, 16, Cameroon

‘My parents used to think that I was their property. They used to abuse me, using words which I cannot repeat without making me cry.’
Girl, 13, Bangladesh

Changes in the law

Over the last 30 years, legislation to protect and prevent discrimination against women and children has been introduced at international and national levels. But few laws refer to girls and young women specifically.

  • 1979, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, is essentially a bill of women’s rights.
  • 1989 The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gave under 18s, both boys and girls, protection under the law.
  • 1993 The World Conference on Human Rights, in Vienna, stated clearly for the first time that: ‘The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.’
  • 1993 The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defined such violence as: ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private.’
  • 1994 The International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, introduced a 20-year policy agenda that is shaping reproductive and sexual health programmes and policies around the world.
  • 1995 The Fourth UN World Conference on Women, Beijing. The Beijing Platform for Action mentions ‘rights’ approximately 500 times and calls for protection of a wide range of women’s rights. It is an important document used by women’s groups and governments to work on gender equality.
  • 2000 The UN Millennium Declaration committed its signatories to the goal of: ‘gender equality and empowerment of women’, to universal primary education for both girls and boys and improvements in maternal health, among others. Six out of the eight Millennium Development Goals are in jeopardy if there are not significant improvements in girls’ and women’s lives by 2015.

Many things have improved as a result of this legislation. Change takes a long time. It is hard to legislate against attitudes or alter the way that girls and young women are viewed at home and in society as a whole.

Missing statistics

While there has been much debate on gender and equality over the last decades, it has obscured two things: first, that although facts and statistics are increasingly collected about women and children, there is very little information out there about girls and young women specifically. As a result, they have been largely ignored as a group, despite the fact that they must constitute at least 25 per cent of the world’s population (another statistic that we do not know for certain because figures are not collected).

What we do have are pockets of information from those working in health or education, for example. And it is only when it is collected together that we begin to get a picture of the overall discrimination that girls and young women continue to face; discrimination that can blight or even end their lives.

Changing lives with Xchange

Marleni Cuellar, 20, has dedicated herself to building a new youth movement called Xchange which is launching in Belize and the rest of the Caribbean over the next few months. ‘What we’re trying to do is create a culture of non-violence in the Caribbean, because it is becoming acceptable to use violence as a way of dealing with difficulties,’ she says.

Marleni is especially concerned about gun violence and violence associated with street crime, which is on the rise in Belize. ‘Recently it’s been a lot of 15, 16 and 17 year olds getting killed with guns, which wakes up anybody to think, “Hey, this is getting out of hand”,’ she says.

She is also concerned about violence in the home, which she says is rife in Belize, especially sexual and physical abuse and corporal punishment. She points out that Belize was the fifth country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits all types of violence against children. Marleni believes that the government should now fulfil this commitment.

She also believes that cultural attitudes must change, and that this only happens through mass movements. This is one reason why she is so excited about Xchange. ‘We have to be able to spread the message, spread the word and get other young people involved as much as possible. And through that we can start the creation of a new culture that doesn’t accept violence so easily.’

What can be done?

While legislation is important, discrimination against girls cannot be abolished by laws alone: a belief in the equal rights of women needs to start in the family and continue through school, work and marriage. This can be reinforced in a number of ways.

  • First, invest in girls and young women. Adequate resources must be supplied to provide for young women and girls, in particular for the poorest and most vulnerable. This is an investment not just in half the population of the world, but in the future for all.
  • Second, promote attitudinal change from cradle to grave. Fathers, husbands and brothers need to be encouraged to view their female relatives as equal to themselves. Young men must challenge the ways they have been brought up and the traditional ways in which they see themselves. As long as women are considered second-class citizens, young women will never be able to achieve their full potential.
  • Third, enforce existing laws relating to girls and young women and discriminatory laws changed to promote their human rights.
  • Fourth, taking a lifecycle approach to improving the rights of girls and young women’s means addressing discrimination at every stage from birth, or even before birth, until they are grown women.
  • Fifth, more data on girls and young women specifically are urgently needed. Statistics and material are collected either on children or on women in general – young women’s needs, as distinct from those of young men, are ignored.
  • Sixth, listen to girls and let them participate. There are many young women out there with the confidence to make themselves heard and the skills and knowledge to make a difference. Young women like Marleni Cuellar. Their voices and views must be listened to by those in power, and supported by family and friends. Only then will babies like Brenda have a better future.
  1. Because I am a Girl: State of the World’s Girls 2007 (Plan, 2007) can be downloaded from
Nikki van der Gaag

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This article was originally published in issue 405

New Internationalist Magazine issue 405
Issue 405

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