The International Day of the Girl Child: when the future is not bright
There are little girls who dream of their wedding gowns and there are others who are already married by the age of eight and sometimes even younger, but their stories involve neither frogs nor knights in shining armour. There are girls who are prevented from receiving an education and when claiming their rights are punished, disfigured with acid or, as recently happened to the young student Malala Yousafzai, shot and seriously wounded. Other girls are sold or made to become prostitutes, abroad or in local brothels, while others instead suffer barbaric genital mutilations.
For the first time ever, on October 11th the United Nations celebrated the first International Day of the Girl Child, in order to remember the far too many cases of abuse, violence and discrimination experienced by little girls all over the world.
This year the theme is “early marriages”, the custom to marry both girls and boys under the age of eighteen, a custom mainly involving girls below the age of ten. In addition to ensuring the respect of basic human rights, the objective is to promote the idea and the awareness of gender equality through education. As emphasized by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, “Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage.” It is also a way of creating a better life “for themselves and their families.”
Girls Not Brides
“Every time I saw him I would hide. I hated looking at him,” says Tehani, who is a Yemeni, speaking of her husband whom she married when she was only six and he was twenty-five. Tehani’s is only one of the many cases UNICEF has reported in Yemen, and although there is much talk of south Asia, the countries most affected are those in sub-Saharan Africa.
The international NGO Girls Not Brides has drafted a list of the top twenty countries involved, led by Niger (with a depressing record of 75% of child marriages) followed by Chad (72%), Bangladesh (66%) and then a series of central African states (Guinea, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Malawi, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Uganda, Somalia, Zambia) and then, just outside this top twenty list, Afghanistan (39% of cases), Yemen (32.3%) and Pakistan (24%). The context is always the same; poverty, a lack of education and severe discrimination between men and women.
This is why the International Day of the Girl Child was created within the framework of policies linked to the Millennium Goals, that specifically include the guarantee of primary education as well as the promotion of gender equality. These objectives are also indirectly linked to improving the health of mothers and the battle against AIDS. “Girl brides” often then become “girl mothers” and are exposed to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and death due to such premature pregnancies.
A few figures...
Imagine these still immature and not completely developed bodies and then imagine these same bodies carrying another life, thereby endangering their own. UNICEF estimates that every day there are about 50,000 young women in the world aged between 15 and 19 who lose their lives for reasons linked to pregnancy and childbirth. These risks of course increase for those who are even younger and aged between 10 and 14.
In 2009 the world was shocked by the case involving the 12-year-old Yemeni girl Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, who died with her baby after being in labour for three days. She too was a child bride in the poorest country in the Middle East.
Child marriages are mainly the result of social customs based on gender discrimination, often in rural areas where a daughter is not considered a resource, but a burden to be got rid of. In many cases it is a socially accepted economic survival strategy. Little girls are sent away from their families as early as possible, entrusted to an adult groom (not always an adult) denying them the opportunity not only to attend school and to grow up among their peers, but also to enjoy normal married life.
This is not that distant, albeit with differences, to the culture that sentences baby girls to death in China.
According to data published by UNICEF, there are today all over the world about 400 million women, now adults aged between 20 and 49, who have suffered this fate and, although figures indicate that the number of child brides has fallen during the past thirty years, more recent data indicates that one out of every three women are obliged to marry before coming of age.
India sets the negative example with a record 70 million women aged between 20 and 24 who were made to marry before they were 18, and of these, 23 million were married before the age of 15.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, (UNFPA), these dramatic figures are destined to rise significantly in the coming decade and estimates expect the 14.2 million child brides in the 2011-2020 period to become 15.1 million in the following decade.
Asia, Europe, Africa: a flourishing market
In addition to the theme of this first International Day of the Girl Child, there is the issue involving little girls who are also the chosen victims of human trafficking.
Once again India holds a negative record and every year between 5,000 and 7,000 young Nepalese girls are brought to the country to be sent to work in the brothels of Bombay and New Delhi. In Thailand, famous for juvenile prostitution, government efforts to stop this phenomenon have resulted in increased trafficking from Myanmar, from southern China, Laos and Cambodia.
Without travelling too far abroad, in civilised Europe, every year about 120,000 women and girls from the east and the south-east of the Old Continent are sold to countries further west. Data becomes confused here and it is difficult to provide accurate figures. What is clear is that 12-year-old girls are made to become prostitutes, while younger ones (also boys in this case) are sent to beg and steal.
With a flight lasting little over three hours from Italy, one finds another trade that attracts many wealthy men from the Gulf.
In Egypt, the hundreds of thousands of street children provide a rich source (data quoted in the State Department report on human trafficking mentions figures that vary between 200,000 and 1 million) of girls to be sold to wealthy men from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait for so-called “temporary marriages” or “summer marriages” lasting just a few weeks, long enough to sexually abuse minors and also use them for domestic work. The sales agreements are at times organised by women from the girls’ own families or by intermediaries.
Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor are the cities where most of this trafficking takes place, but Egypt is also the designated destination for women and girls coming from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, including migrants and refugees, put to work as prostitutes.
UNICEF estimates that every day 3,000 children all over the world become the victims of human trafficking. According to the OIM earnings from this kind of trade amounts to between $7 billion and $10 billion a year.
Translated by Francesca Simmons