In the week of our Fiji Day and Gold Coast Sevens' victory celebrations, an important event took place that may have escaped our attention.
On Thursday, October 11, United Nation Member States, international organisations, and civil society celebrated the very first International Day of the Girl Child.
The landmark resolution declaring the day of the girl-child was passed in December 2011 by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly following a two-year campaign led by Plan International with the support of the Canadian government. It comes at a significant time, when the rights of young women and girls are at a crossroad of growing awareness and ongoing challenges.
According to a post by Ani Colekessian of the Association for Women's Rights in Development, the girl-child is supported by a number of international instruments, but still she faces double discrimination, because she is young and because she is a girl.
In many countries, girls experience discrimination from their earliest moments. Globally, social preferences for boys have led to the disappearance of an estimated 100 million infant-girls. Already at birth a girl's life is at risk: morbidity rates of Infant-girls under 1-year old are 50 percent higher than boys of the same age and those under the age of 5, 40 percent higher.
Girls often encounter barriers to formal education; they are less likely than boys to be enrolled in school, which significantly affects their lifestyle and the opportunities available to them. Each additional year of primary school increases her eventual earnings by 10 to 20 percent; leads to later marriage; fewer and healthier offspring of her own, who have a higher chance of an education; and a reduced risk of HIV/AIDS. Without formal education, girls continue in an ongoing cycle of repression, in which they are expected to assume traditional gender roles, including that of domestic caretaker, while brothers attend school and assume their "male" provider role.
Just days before, one day before "Fiji Day", Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl campaigner for girls' rights was shot and seriously wounded by the Taliban as she was leaving her school in her hometown in the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, Islamabad. Malala Yousafzai first came to public attention in 2009 when she wrote a BBC diary about life under the Taliban. Malala's primary objection was to the Taliban's prohibition of female education. Militants had destroyed over 150 schools in 2008 alone. At the time of writing , young Malala is still in a stable condition, recovering from gunshot wounds to the head and neck.
Colekessian's article also states that overall, 82 million girls in developing countries will be married before they turn 18. Girls who marry at a young age not only risk leaving school early, they also become particularly vulnerable to complications during pregnancy and childbirth as well as STIs and HIV and AIDS. Maternal deaths are more common among young mothers and rates of infant mortality and morbidity are also increased.
In at least 28 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a centuries-old practice of removing part or all of the external genitalia of women for non-medical reasons.
The tradition, grounded in cultural, religious and social beliefs is mostly carried out on girls between the ages of 4 and 12 as a way to control their sexuality. The risks are severe and include mental and physical implications. An estimated 92 million girls in Africa above the age of 10 have undergone FGM.
Globally, 150 million girls under the age of 18 have experienced forced intercourse or other forms of sexual violence. Though most cases remain unreported to authorities due to feelings of shame, panic or disbelief, 36-62 percent of reported sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 15. In the United States, 54percent of all female rape cases occur before age 18 and 1 in 5 secondary school girls aged 14 to 18 have been physically or sexually abused by a romantic partner. In addition to the serious emotional, physical and psychological trauma associated with gender-based violence, according to UNICEF, sexual violence against girls is directly and indirectly related to rising rates of HIV and AIDS following forced intercourse. In some cases, the trauma and shame can also lead to lost childhoods, abandoned education, the loss of dignity and self-esteem.
As child-soldiers, girls are not only recruited as combatants but into domestic and sexual slavery as well. Often the reintegration of ex-combatants has failed to recognize the role of girls in combat. Many programmes offer reintegration packages (skills training, food, and money) in exchange for weapons, wholly useless to girl-combatants who are often unarmed. In many cases, girls who bypass reintegration programs are at risk of isolation and poverty.
In her speech to 50 Key UN Diplomats, 19 year-old Girls Speakers Bureau member, Saba, illustrated the lived experience, "I have no title to my name. I am just a girl. I want you to picture me placing a huge stonewall in front of you. There is no way to climb it or go around it. Essentially you're trapped and invisible. 'Why me?' you ask. What if I told you it's just because of your gender? Wouldn't you feel helpless and vulnerable? This is how many girls feel every day." It is each of the actions and events centered around the International Day of the Girl-Child that will promote equal treatment and opportunities for girls to get around these "stonewalls" they run into every day.
As a father of a vivacious six year-old daughter, I am grateful for the awareness that International Day of the Girl-Child brings and the challenge it makes for us all, to engage with this concern. My son Francisco-Xavier may argue about his rights as a boy-child but I am sure that as he reads and digests the information I am sharing today, he will better understand what his role is as a brother and, perhaps one day, as a father. I hope my little Antonia, with whom I have formed a deep bond with during my last visit home, will learn to value and not take for granted the opportunities she has.
Every girl (and yes, Francisco-Xavier - boys too) child deserves protection, education, respect, and love. Even if these are the only things we can give them, they are the most important things we can give them.
"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity"
nRev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. Visit www.twitter.com/padrejb