Today is the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child, a small step in the right direction toward mobilizing human potential for the improvement of peoples' lives on a global scale. It is well-known by international relief agencies that oppression of girls and women perpetuates cycles of poverty and misery while education and even slight empowerment of girls and women increases community health and prosperity even in the most challenging parts of the world.
Most North Americans give little thought to the problems of girls in third world countries, dismissing their anguish as the cultural or religious problems of others. Girls sold into "marriage", beaten and killed for infractions of religious laws - whether real or imagined - and girls and women treated as the less-than-human property of their male relatives or husbands are all things that we like to imagine can only happen far away from here. Yet, the patriarchal cultures which oppress girls and women so viciously and openly in southeast Asia and in Africa are only slightly removed from the patriarchal culture which still dominates the relatively affluent and "free" western world.
1972 that American women won the legal right to use contraception without a husband's permission - thus enduring multiple unplanned and forced pregnancies or risking dangerous illegal abortions. Cultural misogyny combined with legally enshrined inequality and discrimination ensured that girls and women lagged far behind their male counterparts in educational, economic, creative and intellectual opportunities.
That situation began to change very rapidly with the legalization of contraception and the eventual legalization of women's freedom to gain access to female-controlled contraception enabling them to plan and space pregnancies, or to choose not to become pregnant at all. Women entered the workplace in record numbers and entered the halls of higher education, business and professions in unprecedented numbers as well. The feminist revolution of the 1970's was probably the swiftest and most sweeping era of improved opportunities and quality of life for women in human history, but it also brought the kind of cultural angst which rapid change always brings to societies. The social and reproductive emancipation of women frightened conservatives - both men and women - who were thoroughly inculcated in the cultural misogyny which perceives women as untrustworthy, amoral and even not quite fully human. The idea of more freedom for women - and most of all, reproductive power within female control - was seen as an attack on the very foundations of society by religious conservatives whose Biblical perspective saw the repression and subjugation of women as not only morally defensible but righteous and good.
The social changes in the west during the latter half of the 20th century posed exactly the same visceral threat to the dominance and privilege of western, (usually religious) men that the push for education and empowerment of girls and women poses to conservative men in the third world today. And just as conservative hardliners in southeast Asia and Africa are viciously pushing back against attempts to increase female equality in the third world through violent intimidation, so conservative hardliners in the west launched an almost immediate campaign to roll back the reproductive rights laws as well as to stem the tide of equal-rights legislation that was so long overdue and which, for the first time in human history, enjoyed majority support from both men and women in the late 1970's.
The tool which conservative hardliners used to reverse this popular support for women's equality and human rights was religion. The rise of evangelical Christian fundamentalism, the establishment of the (mostly Christian) homeschooling movement and the explosion of Christian megachurches and "colleges" dotting the landscape in the decade immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1972 (legalizing contraception for both married and unmarried adults) and 1973 (legalizing abortion) were not mere coincidences. A relentlessly thorough campaign to radicalize a generation of Americans in ultra-conservative Bible-based Christianity was the one way that conservative hardliners - determined to push women back into social and sexual subjugation - knew they might succeed even in a nation renowned for its commitment to "liberty and justice for all" its citizens.
The anti-woman, anti-social justice movement was launched in the USA, but Christian fundamentalism has risen throughout the west, thanks in large measure to the efforts of US Christian dominionist "missions" - another facet of the ultra-conservative strategy which was developed as a reaction to the civil rights movement in the 1960's and, more urgently, to the feminist revolution in the 1970's. Religious fundamentalists see women's rights as unBiblical and therefore evil, so they oppose them with all the vigor they can muster. The threat to women's human rights will continue to spread throughout the western world, where issues such as freedom from reproductive slavery and access to education for girls and women had long been thought to be settled, even as progressives in Canada, Australia and Europe continue to believe (erroneously) that they are safe from religious extremism.
logical next step in a Bible-based culture.
The other terrible truth is that hidden violence against girls and women in the west and the constant, entrenched physical and psychological intimidation of girls and women has never actually ceased to be a factor in western society, either. In the latter half of the 20th century, legal protections were finally put in place to offer some protection - a moral commitment to justice in theory, at least, even though it was rarely carried through in practice - and just that theoretical equality before the law was enough to strengthen the resolve of women (and men who support women's equality) enough to allow them to go forward into universities and the workforce and larger society intent on claiming the right to a complete life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in spite of the reality of the still-dismal record of crimes against women that our society continues to accept.
However, with the rise to power of conservative Christianity in the USA nearly every one of the hard-won rights and meagre "protections" for women that were so recently gained have been challenged, chipped away or lost. As in third world societies where religious zealots viciously oppress girls and women while their families either support the oppression or are intimidated into acquiescence by the ruthlessly misogynistic culture, the apparatus for a similar system of female repression is gradually being reassembled in the west.
Just as third-world parents fearfully urge their daughters to obey strict wardrobe rules and suffocating restrictions to their freedom because to go out "improperly dressed" or without a "protector" would almost certainly "invite" rape or other violence from which families are helpless to protect their women because laws forbid it, so western parents may soon be forcing restrictions on their own daughters as the flimsy legal protections of their freedom and right to enjoy life are destroyed through various conservative-backed legislative measures. The legal redefinition of rape to exclude the most common types of sexual assault, the push for "personhood" laws which elevate the status of single-celled blastocysts - and would give rapists the right to force pregnancy on any woman - over the rights and humanity of girls and women, the legislative attacks on women's healthcare and contraception rights and the increasing pressure to force women and girls into more "modest" Biblically-approved dress and lifestyles are all early warning signs that the brief, hopeful interlude in the west when women thought they were marching toward true equality is very much in jeopardy.
So, today, let us think of the millions of girls and women in southern Asia and Africa on the International Day of the Girl Child. Their struggles continue to be epic, as they fight not only for human dignity, social justice and the right to fully human status, but for their very survival. Every day, girls as young as 11 and 12 are forced into marriage - a respectable-sounding word for what is too often actually sexual slavery, domestic servitude and forced, too-early child-bearing - and every day, thousands of them are permanently damaged or even die trying to give birth.
But let us also remember that girls and women in the west have only very recently escaped very similar status. Until very recently, western women had no right to vote, no right to own property and no rights or voice in domestic affairs or affairs of state. Women were the property of fathers and husbands, considered less than men in the eyes of the law as well as in the opinion of the patriarchal culture. Many people in today's culture still view women as lesser beings placed on earth by God so that men could use them to reproduce, and many of these conservatives are actively working to return western women to the days before feminism helped to launch the long and painful fight for equality.
On this International Day of the Girl, let's wake up, America. Wake up, western world! The veneer of civilization and social equality which has been so recently laid over centuries of deeply-entrenched, religiously-fueled misogyny is dangerously vulnerable. Western girls are in grave danger. Wake up!
Strongly recommended reading:
Are Your Birth Control Rights Endangered? Gretchen Voss, Women's Health, September, 2012.
Maybe it's daily pills or monthly shots or some other form of pregnancy prevention. Maybe you already have all the kids you want, or you're waiting until you're ready to have a baby, or you've decided you'll never be ready. And perhaps your contraceptive of choice also eases a medical problem—whether it's painful endometriosis or scary ovarian cysts or disabling pelvic cramps—or helps stave off a new one, such as ovarian or uterine cancer. When it comes to controlling your reproductive health and destiny, birth control has always been there for you and always will be, right?
In a word, no. Because today, there's a national discourse raging around access to birth control—40 years after the Supreme Court legalized contraception for all women, irrespective of marital status, and five decades after the birth-control pill's introduction. And while fringy far-right extremists have always blasted away at contraceptive use, they have now infiltrated the mainstream—in the form of Tea Party Republicans and GOP presidential candidates. "It is shocking to see the vehemence of the attacks on contraception that we are facing these days," says Marcia Greenberger, copresident of the National Women's Law Center.
Are Your Birth Control Rights Endangered? Gretchen Voss, Women's Health, September, 2012.
While the oppression of girls perpetuates a cycle of poverty, the empowerment of girls has a ripple effect that strengthens families, communities, countries, and ultimately the world. If a girl stays in school, remains healthy, and gains skills, she will likely marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she'll invest back into her family. This promotes more productive and stable countries -- enhancing global prosperity and security and benefiting us all.
Most importantly, what happens to adolescent girls should matter because human rights matter. Girls deserve the same opportunities to pursue their hopes and dreams no matter where they live.
An Idea to Change the World: Empower Girls, Kathy Bushkin Calvin, CEO United Nations Foundation, HuffPost Impact Blog, October 11, 2012.
This is a day to celebrate the fact that it is girls who will change the world; that the empowerment of girls holds the key to development and security for families, communities and societies worldwide. It also recognizes the discrimination and violence that girls disproportionately endure -- and it is especially important that one of the cruelest hardships to befall girls, child marriage, should be the UN's chosen theme for this inaugural day.
A Promise to Girls, Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt, HuffPost Impact Blog, October 11, 2012.
The competition for the mark of shame is hard fought, but the title goes to the men who approached a van carrying girls home from school in Pakistan on Tuesday and asked for one very special 14-year-old. Then shot her in the head.
Girl's Courage, Taliban's Cowardice, Frida Ghitis, CNN, October 10, 2012.
Violence keeps girls out of school. Globally, nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls who are 15 and younger. Fear of this type of violence restricts where girls are allowed to go and when they are allowed to be out of the home. Often, parents do not send their daughters to school for this reason.
Make Schools Safe For Girls Everywhere, Jennifer Buffett, CNN, October 11, 2012.
Twice the Taliban threw warning letters into the home of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who is one of the world’s most persuasive advocates for girls’ education. They told her to stop her advocacy — or else.
She refused to back down, stepped up her campaign and even started a fund to help impoverished Pakistani girls get an education. So, on Tuesday, masked gunmen approached her school bus and asked for her by name. Then they shot her in the head and neck.
“Let this be a lesson,” a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said afterward. He added that if she survives, the Taliban would again try to kill her.
Malala's "Crime" Was Loving Schools, Nicholas D. Kristoff, New York Times, October 10, 2012.
In light of what happened in Pakistan yesterday, we don't need to tell you that in some places it's really, really bad for girls. And even in the places where it's not bad, girls face double standards, fewer opportunities, and a future in which they'll earn less for the same or more work.
We don't need to tell you that child marriage is bad for girls, that not educating girls is bad for girls, and that not supporting girls to become leaders is bad for girls.
You're already convinced about that...
But on this day when we're all coming together to talk about The Girl, we at Catapult challenge you.
Not just to talk about her. But to fund her.
In addition to talking, why not fund one of the amazing organizations working to support girls? Why not fund organizations working to end the injustice -- extreme or subtle -- that girls encounter every day?
So that girls can achieve equality.
Don't Just Talk About The Girl. Fund Her, Maz Kessler, HuffPost Impact Blogs, October 11, 2012.
International Day of the Girl website.
|Abebe had hoped to become a doctor, a dream extinguished by forced child marriage and early motherhood.|
(Photo slideshow and Abebe's story by Stephanie Sinclair, Vll Photo Agency, via CNN photoblogs)