Mary Did Not Have a Great "Day of the Girl Child"

10/23/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Mary, a ten-year-old in northern Uganda, was not aware the International Day of the Girl Child was on October 11th. At the time, she was being held by a man who raped her for three days. The man is still at large, but Mary -- not her real name -- is in hospital, facing months of medical treatment to repair her body. We can only guess how long she will be mentally scarred by her experience.

Mary's ordeal reflects the low status of woman and girls in many traditional societies, and the powerlessness of children, as perceived by those who abuse them with impunity. You may not wish to read what follows, because some of it is equally unpleasant, although there is a hopeful ending. However, we owe it to millions of girls around the world to consider them for at least as long as it takes to read this blog.

The International Day of the Girl Child is on a par with the worthy treaties some world leaders sign and then fail to implement. 190 governments have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Children. Yet, each year three million girls in Africa alone are subject to female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting. Girls as young as six endure this in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia.

If the girl doesn't bleed to death from the unsterilized blade, used without anaesthetic, an infection may kill her when local custom dictates that goat manure is put on her wounds, or she is stitched together with thorns.

If the girl survives the ceremony, joining the 125 million females worldwide who have been cut, she may experience pain and infection for the rest of her life. She will certainly have a much higher risk of dying during pregnancy and child birth than an uncut girl.

According to the Orchid Project, she will be 70 percent more likely to haemorrhage after giving birth. Intercourse and even urinating may be painful throughout life. She will also be more susceptible to fistula.

Too many nations ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Children also turn a blind eye to the 15 million girls each year - some as young as 5 - forced into early marriage before their little bodies are physically ready for intercourse. Hence 70,000 girls die in labor annually. In Niger, for instance, 75 percent of females are married while they are girls; 72 percent in Chad and 71 percent in Mali.

It is no coincidence that countries where these traditions thrive score appallingly on the UN's index of human development. Girls forced into marriage have little schooling or knowledge of health or other life skills. Their ignorance perpetuates the cycle of illness and poverty that blight so many parts of the world, especially in rural areas.

These harmful practices are defended as traditions constituting cultural identity. Yet, the same leaders who denounce Westerners for questioning these dangerous traditions are also keen to adopt Western inventions like mobile phones, SUVs and online pornography when it suits them.

Thankfully, innovative groups like the Orchid Project's partner in West Africa, Tostan, make progress by working "with the grain." Many people don't realize some traditions are damaging to health. Once the health implications are explained as part of general education about health and well-being, attitudes may change.

However, the message must come from a trusted local person, rather than an exotic import. In addition, in less individualistic societies than in the West, change must involve everyone in the village through a process of consensus. Girls in one village are cut to make them marriageable to men in the next village: hence both villages must pledge to give up cutting.

At my own charity, Network for Africa, we have found that working with the grain, using trusted local messengers like male medical students, and appealing to men's self-interest, removes layers of distrust and resistance. For instance, a man may allow his wife to space her pregnancies if he is persuaded that a well-fed, healthy, educated child is more likely to provide for him in his old age than one of twelve siblings who are under-nourished, uneducated and often succumb to illness.

There are also ways to improve the lives of girls, such as providing working women with child care so older daughters are not kept home from school to care for siblings. Latrines at school and sanitary towels also make it more likely girls will attend.

When governments take seriously the U.N. conventions they sign but fail to enforce, the journey will become that much easier. Then the International Day of the Girl Child will be worth celebrating.