(WOMENSENEWS)--The birth of a boy in Darfur, Sudan, is cause for celebration. His mother is lavished with gifts of gold to mark the happy occasion. When a girl is born, the moment is mourned.
Gripped by depression, the new mother neglects to breastfeed her daughter for several days. The message is already resoundingly clear during these first moments of life: She matters less than a son.
So begins a lifetime of malnutrition for too many girls in the world.
Every day in Sudan and other countries, most frequently in the developing world, girls are withering away from hunger and malnutrition. According to the United Nations, a child dies from hunger every five seconds.
"Cultural practice, in many developing countries, particularly after the infant years, tends to be that the best food and the first opportunity to eat is given to the men, then the boys," said Kate Newton, a program officer for the United Nations World Food Program in Sudan. "In Darfur, the men and boys often eat completely separately from women and girls. The leftover food is for the women and girls."
Girls' Educations Suffer
Because girls usually start performing the majority of household chores from the time they start to walk, Newton said their educations suffer.
"She is responsible for all housework, collecting heavy pails of water and firewood and other energetic activities like sweeping and washing clothes," said Newton. "Boys are generally given more opportunity to spend more years of their lives playing or learning."
Newton cautions against too much generalizing. Many impoverished parents love their girls and boys equally and feed both sexes to the best of their ability. However, she said that the fact remains that in many countries, boys tend to be preferred from birth.
"Girls carry the greatest burden in the developing world," said UNICEF spokesperson Claire Hajaj. "A malnourished girl is more likely to suffer the worst effects of malnutrition."
Malnutrition in children has serious and long-term consequences. It limits development and the capacity to learn. It also costs lives. UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is implicated in more than half of all the 10.6 million annual child deaths worldwide.
"Half of them are dying of malnutrition," said Hajaj. "When you look at these statistics, how is it that we are not putting nutrition at the center?"
Statistics on hunger are difficult to pin down. While some advocates say girls are the majority of the 300 million or more chronically hungry children in the world, none of the major humanitarian agencies that study and work on it keeps gender-specific counts.
Because growing up female often means growing up as the lesser child, it is widely accepted that far more girls than boys are going without adequate food.
Confronting Laws and Culture
To change that, policymakers and activists are confronting the laws and cultural practices that value sons more than daughters. The push is part of the multilateral effort to achieve the U.N.'s so-called millennium development goals. Adopted by world leaders in New York in September 2000--and reviewed at a world summit last September--these goals represent global targets for reducing poverty and improving standards of living.
Boosting girls' access to education is a top priority in the complicated effort of combating poverty and hunger and their links to larger economies. Educated girls, in the current wisdom of development efforts, are more likely to educate their own children and to provide them with better nutrition and healthcare, helping to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
"There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a 2003 speech. "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."
Of the more than 100 million hungry children not in school, approximately 60 percent are girls, estimates the U.N.'s World Food Program. Getting girls into the classroom and keeping them there is no small challenge. If girls are even sent to school, they are usually the ones that parents will withdraw first in hard times to help support the family.
The U.N.'s World Food Program school feeding program is pursuing anti-poverty policies already familiar in the developed countries, such as free school lunch for all children. But in dispensing cooking oil to children with good attendance--including girls--it also tackles the educational disparities between boys and girls and the status gap that girls suffer inside their homes.
"Girls were not encouraged to go to school," said Margaret Carrington, a World Food Program spokesperson, who explained how the school feeding program works in Pakistan. "So we gave them an attendance card. If their attendance was good they would get cooking oil to bring home. This gives a girl a power position in the family structure. Before, she was just an extra mouth to feed. Now she is a player in the family."
Tackling Hunger Worldwide
The Hunger Project, a global organization headquartered in New York committed to ending world hunger, also focuses on changing how society views its girls. Six years ago it launched National Girl Child Day in Bangladesh.
This year's slogan was "No More Malnourished Girl Child." Over 1,000 events were organized across the country and more than 2,000 people showed their support by marching through the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city.
"Parents have said to me how much it means to them that their girl is being recognized," said Supriya Banavalikar, program associate for South Asia at The Hunger Project, reflecting on the importance of the initiative, which includes all 64 districts in Bangladesh and mobilizes a broad network of government ministries, nongovernmental organizations, women's groups, schools, colleges and the media to educate people about the importance of providing better health, education and nutrition to girls.
The Hunger Project's leadership program in India--the country with the largest number of hungry people in the world--helps to build the capacity of elected women through workshops, skills training and alliance building. Experience has shown that as women take office, they shift the agenda toward meeting basic needs of health, education, nutrition and family income.
The Hunger Project has trained over 30,000 elected women representatives to take effective action to end hunger and poverty in their communities and villages.
"Once women realize that they have a social and public accountability they can use their status to bring about awareness," said Banavalikar.
And part of this awareness is the understanding that a girl child is just as valuable as a boy child. When this happens, says Banavalikar, "all of us can lead happy and productive lives."
Anna Grossman is a freelance writer based in New York. She has a masters degree in international affairs and has worked on gender and development issues for over a decade.
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