(WOMENSENEWS)--As we complete 2004 and assess major world issues, we must confront one critical fact: we are doing a terrible job of taking care of our girls.
While there are many countries where girls are cherished and cared for, the vast majority of girls live in countries where this is not so; in countries of the developing world where there is severe discrimination against women and girls.
In much of the developing world, a little girl eats last and least. She is up to three times more likely than boys to suffer malnutrition.
She is often not taken to the doctor when she is sick and she is less likely to be immunized.
Girls are often kept out of school and put to work. Whether at home, in factories, or in the field, little girls are at work. She starts work at a very young age and works from dawn to dusk, proving the adage "A girl is never a child."
If she does go to school, she's still at risk. Rather than being a safe refuge and a source of empowerment, the school situation is often dangerous. A recent national study showed that 32 percent of reported child rapes in South Africa were committed by school teachers.
This is the life of a girl in the developing world, if she is allowed to live at all.
Abuse the Size of Many Holocausts
Ninety-three million women and girls are "missing" from the world population because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, malnutrition, abuse and neglect of female children. Dr. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Laureate, coined the term "missing women" to describe the great numbers of women in the world who are literally not alive due to family neglect and discrimination This is roughly equivalent to all the deaths in all the wars of the 20th century; the most violent century in human history. This is a holocaust many times over.
So why don't we as citizens of the world hear of this tragedy?
What kind of world are we living in where 93 million lives can be extinguished just because they're girls? Where's our shame? Where's our moral outrage?
The mistreatment of girls affects us all. The developing world faces problems that affect the entire global community: hunger, poverty, HIV/AIDS and population growth. The developing world also has the most severe discrimination of women and girls. These facts are not unrelated. This severe discrimination of women and girls is a primary cause of the persistence of these problems.
Gender discrimination is the greatest moral challenge of our age. And, we will be judged by history on how we respond to this challenge.
It doesn't need to be this way. And it can not continue to stay this way if we want a healthy, productive, just and peaceful world.
Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, has said: "There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and promote health; including helping to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."
Loosening the Shackles
The constraints and the shackles that have been put on girls' lives for centuries are beginning--just beginning--to be removed.
- China this year launched a "Caring for Girls" program to combat sex-selective abortion.
- Over the past 30 years, the number of female teens who marry young has declined both in South Asia and in Africa.
- In Bangladesh, over the past 10 years, a scholarship program has resulted in doubling the number of girls in high school.
- February 9, 2004, marked the first International Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation Day and 10 African countries have recently criminalized this practice.
- Kenya has raised the penalty for child rape to a mandatory life sentence. Previously, this crime was rarely, if ever, punished.
- And in 2004, for the very first time, Afghan women and girls competed in the Olympics Games.
We're at a moment in history when finally a girl's value to society can be recognized and supported, enabled and empowered.
Time for New Action
It is time for a new kind of action.
Even if every country in the developing world increases its education budget, there is no assurance that girls will be educated. Unless a government takes specific actions on behalf of women and girls, increased funding will only perpetuate and widen the gender gap. And the world's basic problems will persist.
There are clear, feasible actions governments can take to improve the lives of girls:
- Mandate farm extension agents to work with female farmers to increase their incomes and reduce their drudgery, since it is the daughters who inevitably share and inherit their mother's workload.
- Expand the mandate of the health workers and midwives to teach mothers to breastfeed their female babies as long as their male babies. And ensure that their daughters are as well fed as their sons.
- Provide scholarships for girls through secondary school and provide incentives to parents to keep their girls in schools.
- Expand the mandate of school teachers to create equal opportunities for girls to learn and to become leaders. And there must be zero tolerance for violence against girls in school.
- Provide farm extension agents, health workers and teachers with adequate supplies and sufficient training.
- Increase significantly the number of women in these professions.
- The developed world can express its partnership by increasing the amount of aid, and making all development aid conditional on countries improving the lives of women and girls.
We know what the world looks like with half of its population treated as inferior and insignificant.
We can only imagine what the world would look like if girls and women could express themselves and be "everything they can be."
Joan Holmes is president of The Hunger Project, based in New York, and a member of the U.N. Millennium Project Hunger Task Force.
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