I was seven the first time I went away from home. I lived in Iran and my parents sent me off to Switzerland for summer camp. I have thought for years if shipping my brother and me off each summer tugged at their heart strings a little.
Recently I've given some thought to providing my own children with the emboldening experience of sleep-away camp. Though when I make mention of any such thought, someone invariably asks, "Could you?" I think to myself, "Sure -- why not?".
A couple of days ago, my eldest child and only daughter went away on a science trip with her school to the mountains just above the city we live in. If I drive to the nearest highway, I can see the mountain range in which she and her friends are undoubtedly having the time of their lives. Yet I am uneasy. As night falls, my breath seems heavy, my veins feel constrained, my thoughts wander to the place in my mind where I store my perceptions of the campsite where kids from three local schools call home for one week each year, and I wonder how she gets comfortable and falls asleep in her strange new surroundings. As I foray over to the camp in the quiet of my thoughts, I forget how long I've been simmering the green beans, or how many cups of rice I put in the pot, or whether or not I have enough water in the stew I'm cooking for the two kids I have remaining at home. I am decidedly uneasy about having my child away from me. It is as though a piece of my flesh is missing. I remember my mother saying this, all those years ago.
My phone is alight every night with texts from other commiserating moms who have been counting the hours until the day passes and we are collectively closer to the big yellow bus pulling up to the school parking lot so we can leap at our emerging kids. None of us thinks our own child is having anything less than a great experience. Rather, we are the ones having a hard time letting go of those "apron strings," as one mom called it, which every mother across the globe eventually unties to watch her daughter move on to a new life. Here, where I live, I envision that eventual separation in the form of a college education and a life of dreams being chased by my young and ambitious daughter. But I know all too well that in too many places across the globe, those apron strings, not to mention the harder heart-strings, will be cut much too soon.
This year, a handful of countries are considering fiercely debated bills that would ban the marriage of girls under the age of 17, and others are attempting to enforce laws that are already in place but largely ignored. Child marriage is widespread in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, particularly in rural areas, where girls as young as eight are married off by poor parents who see marriage as financial security for their children and an economic break from them (see: here.)
This horrific practice exists in almost every corner of the world where there is poverty or lack of education, or worse, where there is both. Poverty usually breeds a lower standard of education as children are kept from school and sent to work to generate income to support extended families. Unplanned births of multiple children strain the bonds of parents with their children, and even siblings as they realize their personal opportunities are curtailed for the benefit of the greater good. There is little to no opportunity for education -- and if there is, it is reserved for the sons -- rarely the daughters.
I look at my own daughter and I see a world of possibilities. She can be whatever she wants to try. She does mostly what she feels like doing from climbing without worrying about who is looking or what they might say, to singing and dancing-around without worrying what someone will think. She doesn't worry that some silly piece of fabric -- which has been adjusted onto her head so as not to arouse the boys -- may fall off, or that some defunct tradition may prevent her from reaching her dreams and aspirations. I look at her and can't help but wish the same luxuries for all the little girls around the world.
But then my thoughts wander off to Somalian refugee camps where girls are afraid to pee for fear of being sexually assaulted, or to Africa where girls as young as seven battle the blade of FGM, or to Afghanistan where 10-year-olds succumb to early marriage, or Yemen where 12-year-olds die during childbirth, or to India where girls are handed to people who promise money to impoverished families and education for the girls they cajole out of their parents clutches, only to ship them off to brothels for years of forced labor and ongoing abuse.
Just a few nights ago, as I was putting my daughter to bed before the big trip, she was twirling around in her room picking lip-balm and envisioning what "Science Camp" would be like. I couldn't help but think that in a different place on earth this would be a much tougher moment. I would be worried what the night held for my fun-loving daughter who at present has no concept of how harsh the world can be toward women and girls. In some places we would be preparing to marry her off soon -- by force of culture or tradition -- need or greed. In either case, the pain of the mother who knows her child has to be wrenched away from her grasp only to meet the cruelty that lies ahead would be devastating. Yet millions -- yes millions -- of women and children endure this colossal pain generation after generation.
The good news is that I see change on the horizon -- I finally do. Countless organizations, small and large, have caught a glimpse of the unfathomable plight of women around the world and are beginning to create the global howl that is making people across continents stand up and take notice that women and girls need an empowering hand to begin changing centuries-old traditions that are tantamount to systemic abuse.