October 11th marks the International Day of the Girl 2015. These are just three issues that are holding back the progress in the fight for universal gender equality.
Right now, every two seconds a girl under the age of 18 is married. 38 000 a day, 270 000 a week, 1.1 million a month, and 14 million a year.
Despite its near total worldwide illegality early-forced-marriages continue to exist and thrive in many parts of the developing world. Child-brides are more likely to suffer violence, rape, and even death at the hands of their spouse. The age gap between bride and groom lays the groundwork for abuse, or at the very least, unequal relations. In developing countries girls are always consigned to the role of mother and housewife, this usually means bearing children and domestic servitude. Every year 70 000 newly wed girls die in labour because their bodies aren’t ready for childbirth, while domestic life robs them of the chance to go to school.
The causes of child marriage are complex. Some of the blame must be placed on the village patriarch’s who purvey religious beliefs and conservative dogma at the expense of human rights. However, there are also social and economic reasons. In loosely bound states marriage is a way to create community cohesion and keep local economies afloat. It is no coincidence that girls from the poorest 20% of households are three times more likely to marry before they are 18, as opposed to their richer counterparts. Likewise girls in villages are 50% more likely to marry before 18 compared to those from towns.
Marriage is a transaction. Bride prices and dowries often compel parents to sell off their daughters for financial reward. Whether this sale is due to poverty, tradition, or simply because that sons are favoured, for the girl in question the results are the same: A lifetime of limitation.
Female Genital Mutilation
As of today 130 million girls are living with the consequences of FGM and every year another 3 million are at risk. Victims can be as young as five.
Upon getting cut girls, are at immediate risk of death from shock or blood loss. A few weeks later they could develop gangrene or sepsis. In the years that follow they may have to undergo corrective surgery, and will likely experience sexual dysfunction. However, beyond the physical scars are the psychological ones. FGM survivors often suffer PTSD symptoms long after the event including, flashbacks, anxiety and depression.
Unfortunately, like Child-marriage, FGM continues to thrive because of tradition. Girls are cut to maintain their honour, preserve their chastity, uphold religious law, and make them worthy of marriage. We like to think of this as a regional problem, but it’s international.
In the Western World we have the resources to combat FGM, but for many girls, they have no help whatsoever. Countrywide rates vary from 2% in Niger to 92% in Egypt, and yet despite the discrepancies, FGM exists for the same conservative reasons. To eradicate this barbaric practise, we need to foster a society which values girls rights, as opposed to religious ones, and create legislation to safeguard children.
In 2013 the World Health Organisation published a shocking statistic: 1 in 3 women around the world has experienced rape or violence.
In 2014 an EU report, found 1 in 10 women has been the victim of sexual assault, even before they reached the age of 15. Finally this year there has been a worldwide increase in gender-based violence. Not surprising considering the the wars, conflict and the mass movements of peoples that are taking place across the globe. In such an atmosphere of displacement crimes against women rise considerably. However, GBV occurs more often closer to home. Recent statistics tell us 80% of violence against girls, is perpetrated by a family member or spouse.
A girl who is sexually assaulted or attacked will often suffer shame and stigma because of it. Shame because they are considered blameable and stigma because many judiciaries favour men. Females are also likely to experience a wide array of mental health problems from anxiety and depression, to more serious PTSD and agoraphobia. There is also a very real possibility of serious injury or death
To tackle this problem a strong legal framework both for the police and courts needs to be created. Likewise government policy and local activism needs to create both the law and attitude to foster change. Finally survivors must be given access to medical, psychological and social support in the wake of an attack. Unfortunately more works needs to be done. Sadly, fear and harassment, from simply walking down the street or riding a bus, are a normal part of many females lives. This has to change.
The Bottom Line
Adolescent girls have until recently been ignored in the global civil rights movement. Either classed as women or children they face unintended marginalisation. However, in reality they are one of the most vulnerable groups of people. It is now an established fact, that gender equality fosters economic prosperity and social cohesion. True change occurs, when we give girls the keys to unlock their potential. In doing so, we can all get out of the prison, and give tomorrows children a chance to breathe fresh air.