The United Nations wants us to make life better for girls. It's a worthy aim. But what does that mean in practice?
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
I’m generally not a big fan of United Nations publicity campaigns. Just take the U.N.’s habit of setting aside particular "international observance days" as a way of highlighting various worthy causes. What, for example, are we supposed to make of gimmicks like "World Poetry Day" or the "International Day of Happiness"?
One of the problems with such campaigns is that they tend to preach a kind of ecumenical optimism that hovers high above the complexity of real-world politics. Who could possibly oppose poetry, or happiness? Even Bashar al-Assad would proclaim himself fully in favor. So what’s the point, then?
Cynical though I am, I have to confess that one of those days has started me thinking. October 11 marks the U.N.’s "International Day of the Girl Child." Forget the awkwardly tautological title: The event itself offers an occasion to consider some of the specific problems faced by girls around the world. That seems like a potentially constructive provocation — perhaps because I can’t help thinking about my own 9-year-old daughter and the challenges she’s likely to face precisely because she’s a girl.
She was lucky enough, of course, to be born in one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable societies, which makes it less likely that she’ll have to confront some of the uglier injustices that plague girls in other parts of the world. But of course not even the United States is immune to threats of sexualized violence or economic discrimination.
So let’s simplify matters. Let’s just assume that my daughter is a global citizen — along with the world’s other 900 million girls age 15 or under. What kind of life does she have a right to expect?
First and foremost, she deserves to live in a free society where her individual human rights are respected, regardless of gender. Political systems aren’t necessarily the best guide to this. It’s great that Rwanda has equal numbers of men and women in parliament, for example, but I wonder if that really means much in a country where the president has the final say in everything. There are plenty of benign despots in the world who claim to promote women’s rights by pledging equal opportunity, but I wonder how far such pledges can be taken seriously when those women can be thrown into jail at a moment’s notice for making critical remarks about their leaders.
Democracy is certainly preferable to any other form of government — though not even the existence of democratic institutions automatically guarantees proper respect for the rights of girls. Just look at India, where village girls are routinely pulled out of school, whether they like it or not, and forced to become child brides at appallingly young ages. One Indian activist recently made an observation that certainly holds true for too many other parts of the world:
Girls are considered second-class citizens. They carry your bag to school for you. They get your dinner. The sexist attitude is ingrained in the way one is brought up here. When I had my second child, and she happened to be a girl, my in-laws, who are very well-educated people, were not very happy about it.
But at least Indians can openly discuss the shortcomings of traditional ways, which facilitates evolution and change. I’m not sure we can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia.
And while we’re on the subject of girl brides: No, I don’t want to see my daughter married off in early adolescence to someone who’s essentially offered me the highest price. I want her to be able to choose her own spouse, and I want her — and no one else — to choose the moment when the time is right for that.
Needless to say, long-accepted traditions in many countries weigh heavily against doing away with child marriage. The U.N. is to be applauded for drawing attention to the broader social ills caused by the practice. (To name but one, marrying off girls at early ages almost always means that their educations are cut short.) Last year, U.N. agencies used the International Day of the Girl Child to stage a global campaign focusing on the need to do away with child marriage. I’d like to see them do more.
What else? Well, my daughter deserves to have the same educational opportunities as her male counterparts. Girls shouldn’t be shunted off into vocational training aimed at turning them into better housekeepers. They should have access to all the subjects that boys are allowed to study — including math and science, all too often viewed as "inappropriate" subjects for girls. If my daughter finds that she has a knack for engineering, why not?
Sadly, there are many societies that still hew to the notion that science, technology, and mathematics (STEM) are the natural province of men. Educational systems built on such preconceptions will tend to push female students in corresponding directions. (In China, for example, women account for only about a third of the workforce in STEM-related professions.)
Speaking of school: My daughter deserves the chance to participate in sports as she sees fit. There’s nothing in the Bible, the Quran, or Buddhist scripture that should prohibit her from playing soccer, baseball, or chess. (And yet this is still a matter of considerable controversy in some countries. I hope that the growing prominence of women athletes is starting to wear down some of those pathetic prejudices.)
Next: There should be no coercive exploitation of my daughter’s labor. There is no justification for slavery in the modern world. Yet this, too, is still far from a given. All too often girls are regarded as chattel, property that can be bought or sold. This is unacceptable. Human beings, and especially children, cannot be owned. Unfortunately, it is often girls who have the least power to resist such pressures, both from inside and outside their families. It’s only right to push for greater protections wherever possible.
Now, I realize that it’s customary in some places for children to support their families with their own work, sometimes from very early ages. This is especially true in agrarian societies, where having more children is sometimes a strategy for ensuring a bigger labor force, and thus greater prosperity, for the family as a whole. So making things better for children, and especially girls, will require a wholesale change in economic conditions — not the kind of thing that happens overnight. Yet it’s important to keep the right goal in view: Wherever possible, kids should be learning, not working.
And then there’s the most uncomfortable topic of all: rape. Girls everywhere deserve to be protected from sexualized violence in all its forms. You’d think this would go without saying. But recent events show us that there are still too many men in the world who think that coercing women into sex is perfectly fine. The notorious Delhi gang rape case has helped to dramatize the dimensions of the problem. (Personally, I think I’ve been just as shocked by what that scandal tells us about attitudes toward rape within the Indian elite as by the crime itself.)
The U.N. is also to be applauded for taking on this topic. The organization recently conducted a study (the results of which were published in the British medical journal The Lancet) that found that one-quarter of 10,000 men interviewed in six Asian-Pacific countries had forced women to have sex with them. Worse, half of the men who confessed to having committed rape had done so as adolescents — strongly suggesting that this is a horror that affects girls as much as it does women.
This is not the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in. She deserves to live on a planet where people treat her and other girls like her as full-fledged human beings, not as playthings or economic assets. Honoring their promise and potential will often require huge changes in established institutions and traditional ways of doing things. I’m glad that the U.N. has the gumption to take on this controversial subject by drawing attention to the problems specifically facing girls. I know it will be hard to change. But we have to try. Anything else is a betrayal.