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Protecting our Girls

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Three weeks ago a little boy in my daughter Nisa's first grade class threatened to shoot her. Nisa did not report this to me, despite me asking her about every detail of her day. Later, when I found out and asked her why she didn't tell me, she said she was embarrassed. She said she didn't want me to be angry with the boy. No matter how shaken that incident left me, I had to admit that the school responded appropriately by removing the boy from class for a time, making him apologize, and informing both the boy's mother and me of the incident. Still, I was left with an uneasy feeling, in part because my understanding is that the child's mother works in law enforcement--meaning a weapon may indeed be present in the household--but more because I'm acutely aware of the amount of violence that's directed toward girls. Nowhere was that driven home more painfully then during the events which unfolded in Colorado and in Pennsylvania the last weeks.

That I know there's a need for schools which are safe and secure without undermining the dignity of students should go without saying, and I hope that policymakers and educators who met at the White House this week will consider this issue without being reactionary (no, teachers should not have guns in the classroom). But what also must go considered is that the recent horrific events were directed against girls, from the shootings and murder to the sexual assaults. That no grand summit has been called to address violence against girls is, to this mother's thinking, reprehensible.

Violence against girls and women is a pandemic and the statistics are not secret. We know that more than half of all rapes occur before a girl reaches 18-years-old, and of that figure, 22% of rapes occur before a girl is 12. Still, the FBI estimates that less than 40% of rapes are ever reported. According to the United Nations Study on the Status of Women in 2000, at least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are "missing" as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect. UNICEF reports that nearly one million children enter the sex industry annually. Most of those children are girls. And in Toronto, the FREDA Centre reports that 86% of the girls who are runaways had experienced sexual abuse prior to leaving their homes.

These statistics are but the proverbial drop in the bucket, and what I want to know is that when the data indicate that girls who are abused are more likely to dangerously binge on alcohol and other substances; smoke; engage in risky sex; and develop long-term health challenges including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and gastrointestinal problems, who among us is finally going to stand up and stop the pattern? While in no way would I ever discount the activists and educators who have been on the front line in the battle to stop violence against girls and women, I want to know where their counterparts in government are, especially the ones who have been so outspoken about the war against terrorism. I would submit that our girls, too many of them, are living their own version of terrorism. It doesn't have to be this way.

There's a culture of silence around gender-based violence that must be broken. We can start by incorporating discussions about violence in general and violence targeted specifically against girls everywhere: in our homes, in our schools, in our houses of worship. We can determine violence against girls to be a priority in media coverage--as we have with other pandemics. We can examine our laws to see if they are truly designed to protect and restore women and girls. We can listen to our girls, pay real attention to them, and not just when they make a mistake. We can choose not to make heroes out of men who abuse women, even when, perhaps especially when, those men maintain a level of celebrity.

When my daughter was about 48 hours old, a friend who was attending to us admonished me to "Put that baby down. You're going to spoil her." I replied, quietly, "I'm gonna hold this baby til I can't hold her no more." Now my baby is six. And then as now, I hold that baby, only as she grows older, I use not simply my arms, but my mouth to speak truth to her, my legs to walk into her school or anyplace else and defend her when needed. And, because Nisa, out of "embarrassment" couldn't tell me she'd been threatened, above all, I use my heart, to hear the story behind the story she first tells me.

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