Concerns over the girl child problem in Fiji needs no national survey to determine its existence, intensity or how extensive it is, says Save The Children Fund and the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre.
This followed a recent report to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women over the societal "girl child" problem in the Pacific and how girls were not taken into consideration when national policies were drawn up.
It also revealed how the girl child problem was compounded by custom and tradition which in turn gave way to violence and discrimination against females.
According to the Human Development Program of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Tuvalu Home Affairs Minister, Willy Telavi told the UN CSW last month the girl child problem in many countries started at the bottom of the hierarchy where they were socialised to a sense of inferiority.
Mr Telavi spoke of other factors which placed girls at risk including the use of custom, culture and tradition as justifications for discriminatory and violent treatment. This included early and forced marriage, especially in Melanesia, limited access to education, teenage pregnancy and the consequent impacts on health and education, and social acceptance of violent punishment of children.
"As a consequence, the situation of the girl child in the Pacific is characterised by a growing incidence of girl children in child labour, higher health risks, including exposure to HIV and AIDS, continued growing rates of teenage pregnancy, low self-esteem and psychological damage among girls," Mr Telavi said.
Mr Telavi said it was crucial to "actively engage men and boys in efforts to reduce inequalities, including in the everyday life of the family".
The same problems were highlighted in a join report by the Fiji Women's Rights Movement and the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre commissioned by UNICEF and UNIFEM. The report was tabled in Italy in October last year.
Girls are not raised to be meek and mild
Interim Minister for Labour, Bernadette Rounds-Ganilau has disputed claims that Pacific Island girls are raised inferior to their male counterparts.
"I was never raised to be inferior. I was raised with four boys and my mother was Tongan, I was not molly-coddled. The Tongans raise their women to be very strong. No family raises their daughter to be meek and mild," she said.
She said parents these days were "for the education of the girl child."
The Fiji Women's Crisis Centre director, Shamima Ali said the girl child problem stems from the time a child is conceived.
"We prefer that the first born is a male, in any family. But there is a slow transition to the great acceptance of the eldest child being a girl although traditionally that's not how it has been," Ms Ali said yesterday.
She said boys have more access in the family compared to their female counterparts where duty and restrictions are concerned, and this included the aspiration for higher education.
Ms Ali said in schools, teachers appeared to encourage and favour boys ahead of girls, while at home girls were more prone to child labor via household chores which included catering to the needs of the males in the family.
In single parented families, the girl child problem is further compounded by the direct threat of sexual exploitation, she said.
In the rural areas, the girl child problem is worse as young girls continue to do more than their fair share of chores compared to boys.
"Girls get more blame than the boys," Ms Ali said.
In rich families, however, the distinction is classed based with some leeway for girls, she said.
Save The Children's Fund said there were numerous reports available on the girl child problem to source information from.
"Save The Children's Fund is concerned with the rights of every child, particularly if a child is treated differently for different reasons. For example, a girl child is doubly vulnerable if she is disabled because we live in a society where culture dictates it," programs manager, Margaret Logavatu said.
Ms Ali said in its 22 years of operation, it dealt with the girl child problem on a daily basis with varied reports from around the country.
A report by FWRM and FWCC on The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and Violence against the Girl Child highlights factors that contribute to the increasing vulnerability of the girl child.
This ranged from gender inequality in socialisation, discriminatory application of custom, early forced marriage and social acceptance of violent punishment of children.
Other factors included the preservation of a culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse, limited access to and low quality of education as well as migration.
The consequences of vulnerability of the girl child includes high numbers of girl children engaged in child labour, higher health risks for the girl child, low self esteem and psychological damage among girls, higher risk of sexual abuse among girls and higher rates of commercial sexual exploitation of girls.
Fighting the problem
In order to tackle the problem, education at community level with parents involved is necessitated. This opinion was shared by FWCC, FWRM and the Save The Children's Fund.
Save the Children Fund said girls should be treated as equally as boys.
"Early marriage for the girl child is 16 years of age but for boys its 18, by consent. This is exploitation because someone is benefiting from it by virtue of dowry or money. This is commercial sexual exploitation because someone is benefiting from it.
"There is a strong need for us to address the inconsistency in laws that govern children. Every child should be seen as equal. We must lobby for a reform of the legalities surrounding this," Ms Logavatu said.
Ms Ali said the centre was doing its best at community level given its 22 years experience in trying to deal with the problem.
"We are doing this at the moment (community education). You have to spell it out to them. Gender equality has to happen. It starts from home before it can filter out to the community. Once that's sorted out, others fall into place," Ms Ali said.
She said the centre has a pool of funds donated by the community for special girl child problems like when a woman is abandoned by her husband or partner and can barely afford to make ends meet. "Where girls in such cases can't go to school, we pay for their fees. It's something we'd rather do quietly.
"In poor families, boys are sent to school ahead of girls because of the perception that the girl will get married some day and move out. That's one of the areas we are trying to change," Ms Ali said.
Attempts for comments from Interim Women's Minister, Adi Laufitu Malani were unsuccessful.
Fiji Women's Rights Movement said they recognised the problem some ten years ago and have since introduced a Young Women's program to address the problem.
FWRM said it wanted its policies to reflect its concerns over the matter so that when it came to pushing for the same at national level, the end result was for all including the girl child problem.
Its joint report with FWCC identified the need for a legislative review and the need to improve law enforcement, encourage donor support, promote compliance with international standards on the rights of girls and women and develop policies and strategies to this end.
Forty-five member states of the United Nations serve as members of the Commission at any one time. There is currently no Pacific representation.
The 51st session of CSW, which runs for two weeks every year, is the world's principal policy-making body on women's rights. The session at which Mr Telavi spoke featured member states' progress reports.