By Sabrina Almeida
This year Thanksgiving Monday also marked the International Day of the Girl Child, an annual initiative launched by the United Nations to promote gender equality around the world. A critical reminder that we should celebrate young girls in our families, communities and around the world.
You may shrug it off thinking there is gender parity in Canada, but statistics tell a different story. Data shows that between 2009 and 2014, the vast majority (87%) of police-reported sexual assault victims were women or girls, most of whom (70%) were under the age of 25. Girls and women are more likely than males to experience violence, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence, according to Statistics Canada.
A study by Women’s Aid, UK, shows sexism and misogyny set the stage for domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. And that they also serve to excuse abusive behaviour by men in intimate relationships with women and put up barriers to female survivors being believed and supported to leave abusive men. The #Me Too movement is a likely example.
Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and therefore, also half of its potential. Yet, every day hundreds of thousands of girls around the world are harmed physically or psychologically, with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends, and communities, says the UN. The international organization fears the situation will get worse without continual intervention.
Gender discrimination holds us all back as its effects reach far beyond those experiencing bias and violence. Experts tell us it can have long-lasting and negative health, social and economic effects that span generations leading to cycles of violence and abuse within families and sometimes whole communities.
A report released last June by UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, drew attention to at least 19 harmful practices against females that are considered human rights violations. Genital mutilation, child marriage, and extreme bias against daughters in favour of sons are the three most prevalent ones.
If you are a woman of Indian origin, chances are you will have experienced the latter first hand. It’s a self-perpetuating, traumatic reality for most girls from Indian families.
UNICEF acknowledges this saying, “Wherever they live in India, girls and boys see gender inequality in their homes and communities every day – in textbooks, in movies, in the media and among the men and women who provide their care and support.”
It also highlights high female mortality rates which it believes stem from the preferential treatment males receive. “Globally girls have higher survival rates at birth, are more likely to be developmentally on track, and just as likely to participate in preschool, but India is the only large country where more girls die than boys,” said the UN body. “Girls are also more likely to drop out of school,” it adds.
Child marriages, prevalent not just in India but in every region of the world, are a huge blot on society. While most of them are in poorer countries, the UNFPA report includes accounts of child marriage in the United States. This shows that gender equality is a work in progress even in the developed world.
The Ontario government’s plan to offer free menstrual products in schools drew attention to some ugly facts about the plight of girls in Canada as well as the stigma surrounding menstruation that we may think exists only in India and developing countries.
According to Plan International Canada, “girls continue to face challenges when it comes to affording, accessing, and talking about menstrual hygiene products”. It believes this is amplified by the fact that men and boys remain uncomfortable talking about women’s health, including periods.
It’s hard to believe that many Canadian girls miss school due to their periods. But research shows that almost two-thirds of females aged 14 to 55 in Canada have had to miss out on an activity because of their period and concerns about not being able to access menstrual hygiene products, while almost six in ten (58 per cent) have felt the need to lie about being on their period or hide a menstrual product.
The survey results also showed that despite growing public conversation about menstrual products and menstruation, social stigmas strongly persist. Almost half (41 per cent) of female respondents say they have been teased about being on their period, including by friends, colleagues, and relatives.
The Beijing Declaration adopted in 1995 was the first to specifically call out girls’ rights. Almost 20 years later, in 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges they face around the world. A decade later the task at hand still seems monumental amidst the small strides we have made.
Education is one of the main pathways to improving the confidence, social and economic status of girls around the world. Yet, studies show that nearly 1 in 4 girls aged 15–19 globally are not in education, employment, or training, compared to 1 in 10 boys.
The gender gap for global internet users also grew from 11 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2019. In the world’s least developed countries, it hovers around 43 per cent.
As the White House said, the status of women and the peace and prosperity of nations are inextricably linked. When girls do well, we all do well.
Let us all make a personal commitment to the realization of gender equality which begins with the empowerment of girls.