Oct 11, 2012

Miss Dalloway

Two days ago, Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year old Pakistani schoolgirl, was shot in the head while she was waiting for the bus home after finishing her classes. Two other girls were injured in the incident. The Taliban claimed the authorship of the attack. In their view, Yousufzai had engaged in “obscene” activities. Back in 2008, the group had ordered to close all girls’ schools in the Pakistani district of Swat, close to the border with Afghanistan. Of course, the order was accompanied with violence, and over 100 schools in the area were destroyed. From anonymity, at the age of 11, Yousufzai began writing a blog published by the Urdu-language edition of the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19899540). There she tells of the fear that permeated her, her family and her friends because of the Taliban presence in the area and her disappointment since because maybe she would not be able to go back to school. Later in 2009 she began to appear in Pakistani media advocating for female, more precisely for girl, education. In 2011 her government awarded her the National Peace Award, an acknowledgement for people under 18 years of age who made efforts to construct a harmonic society. She even considered eventually forming her own political party, of course dedicated to impulse education. All that exposure (very possibly the fact of the exposure and its substance) was what the Taliban labeled as “obscene” activities which, according to them, deserved the summary death penalty. As of Thursday noon, Yousufzai’s status is reported as critical.

And today it is the first celebration of the International Girls Day. Some information, perhaps not entirely new but striking to see it corroborated, has been shared on this occasion (my main source is the organization Girls not Brides: http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/). Problem number one of girls not being girls is that they are forced to become wives and mothers. Every year, an estimated 10 million girls are married before they turn 18. And every day more than 25,000 girls are robbed from their families. With “luck”, the family can be restituted with poultry or some money in exchange for their daughter. In developing countries, a married teenager is very unlikely to continue studying; very possibly she will have to stay home to nourish her children, to take care of the house or to dedicate her time to household agriculture, while the husband goes someplace else to work. So, it can be argued that a married girl is subtracted from the whole of the society.

But this can put her life at risk: childbirth is the leading cause of death for girls between 15 and 19 years old in the developing world, and babies from mothers under 18 are more likely to die in their first year of life. Moreover, there is a high risk that uneducated married girls become infected with HIV/AIDS or that they suffer domestic violence.

Not all is bleak: girls with secondary education are up to six times less likely to marry as children than uneducated girls. Thus, the link is apparently direct, as more education leads to less marriage, to less risk of losing life at an early age, and to a strengthening of the society. Having this in mind, the United Nations urges governments, civil society organizations, the private sectors, religious groups, and the international community to: enact legislation prohibiting girls to marry under 18 years of age, improve access to primary and secondary education, mobilize the society to change discriminatory gender norms, support married girls with opportunities to pursue their education and to access health and sexual information and services, and “address the root causes of child marriage, including violence against girls and women”.

However, as exemplified by the case of Yousufzai, in some regions the simple mention of wanting more education can prompt violence. A collaborator of the Pakistani paper The Dawn described the situation of Yousufzai as being left “at the mercy” of the Taliban, indirectly accusing the government for her fate. What is more, to “address the root causes of child marriage” goes far beyond enacting legislation, as there are deeper situations related to children marriage, like profound poverty, making some families appreciate some hens and pigs more than their daughter, or the limited scope of some states, which are unable to implement laws already existing. But that is what this celebration aims at: debating how to improve girls’ lives and to let them enjoy their childhood and adolescence.


1 Comment

  • Great post Pablo, as per usual. Sorry I’m jumping on this issue a little late.

    As much as Ms. Yousufzai is absolutely brave and inspiring, I always look with trepidation at the way the media (and to a large extent, NGOs and governments too) discuss women’s rights. Women’s issues tend to be compartmentalized into a little world of their own, with lots of pink and a distinctly saccharine tone. “These are not serious issues, like war or the economy” they advertise, “We are appealing to your superior Western morality. Aren’t other cultures SO barbaric?!” Initiatives like these seem to be more about taking potshots at an “enemy” culture than actually improving the lives of women.

    Women’s rights are human rights. Full stop. As of now, they tend to play second fiddle to a host of other issues, and are often subject to ideological whim. Do you think Romney will reinstate the Global Gag Rule if he is elected?

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