The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines any person under the age of 18 as a child, yet in some countries in South Asia and Africa, 50-70 percent of girls are forced to marry before they reach 18; they unwittingly marry as child brides in the absence of an adult who might protect them from this human rights violation. For many of these girls, their initial sexual encounter is forced, as is most subsequent sexual activity with their husbands and they are far more vulnerable to physical violence from their husbands than are women who marry later. After all, these girls are still children, both physically and emotionally -- children greatly in need of protection, guidance, and education -- all of which is absent from their lives. Of the millions of young girls who manage to survive pregnancy and childbirth, their days and nights are bleakly encumbered by caring for their babies and husbands and fulfilling the heavy burden of domestic chores. For most of them, their chances for education and/or training of any sort are virtually nonexistent. Without international intervention, which has occurred, but only in very rare instances, they are doomed to the hopeless poverty, drudgery, and entrapment that were the lot of their mothers, grandmothers and many generations of women who came before them.
Why is this dismal existence a reality for millions of young girls worldwide? What are the deeply entrenched beliefs that create the circumstances that enslave so many young girls? In these countries where girls are robbed of their chances to be children and to receive an education -- what is a girl worth in the minds of the adults who control them?
A month ago I returned from Ethiopia where I had been designing training modules and educational materials for a project aimed at empowering young girls to stay in school and succeed there. This particular project impacts roughly 56,000 girls in a very poor, remote, agricultural region in Southern Ethiopia. Despite the national law that sets 18 as the minimum age for marriage, nearly one in five Ethiopian girls marries before she reaches 15. But regardless of whether or not Ethiopian girls end up as child brides -- nearly all of them encounter, to some degree or another, the deeply entrenched attitude that girls have little value outside of being responsible for domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water and tending livestock and perhaps more importantly -- satisfying the sexual demands of their husbands at their husbands' whims.
Many parents and community leaders cling fiercely to the traditional belief that it's a waste of money to pay school fees for a daughter since her destiny is to marry, bear multiple children, and manage the home. Not surprisingly, this attitude contributes to keeping young girls in the dark about even the most basic understanding of their own reproductive and sexual health, leaving them and their babies at risk of infection and death.
Additionally, without positive female role models or opportunities to network with other girls and women, girls are deprived of learning skills that can lead to earning money and managing it wisely so that they can rise out of poverty.
We know that knowledge is power and without access to knowledge and information, girls are rendered impotent and defeated. Clearly, the solution involves education, but not just for the girls themselves. The adults in their lives, who control their destinies, are in equal need of understanding the true worth of a girl as a contributing member of a productive society. It is the behavior, thinking, and decision-making of the significant adults in a girl's life that can positively impact and empower her, allowing opportunities for her to learn, grow and improve her own life and the lives of her family and community. Direct involvement and intervention from the international community is key to changing age-old traditional and cultural attitudes and practices that entrap girls.
My next trip to Ethiopia involves an on-site field assessment of various stakeholders who are most influential in the day-to-day lives of girls. Following the assessment will be the initial design of an inclusive pilot training program for the girls and the adults who most significantly impact them. My goal is to create modules geared toward shifting adults' attitudes in the direction of perpetually increasing gender sensitivity with respect to empowering girls through education. The stakeholders include parents, teachers, school administrators, officials specializing in gender-related issues, and members of the PTA, local government and/or administrative bodies. Training these adults and getting them fully on-board as advocates for girls will strengthen the process of building a sustainable, strong and committed team with the necessary skills and attitudes to initiate the shift in the wider community.
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