Girls, interrupted

A new report says the young women’s fight is just beginning

“Oh, God, I beg of you . . . / Next birth don’t give me a daughter / Give me hell instead.” These are the lyrics from a folk song in India. Tragic as they are, they express a basic truth, that the lives of girls are much more difficult than those of boys, and the hard road starts at birth.

The lyrics – quoted in “Because I am a Girl,” a new report by the child-development agency Plan International – sum up the way life for young females all over the planet, not just in the developing nations.

And parents know this, even in Canada. I have heard successful women tell me privately that they were secretly grateful to have given birth to boys, knowing just how much tougher daughters would need to be to survive. The thought that their girls would suffer the way they had was just too painful.

I find it interesting that these women would never say this in public. Is it an admission of the failure of our generation of women? Did the battle come to naught?

Girls matter.

Indeed, most Canadian parents of daughters would say their girls matter more than they do, and that the fate of the next generation is their deepest concern. It’s why we’re switching light bulbs, recycling, driving less and trying to buy local food. And then we teach our daughters to balance a household budget, to work hard in school so as to get a satisfying and well-paying job, to be strong in themselves but to help their girlfriends, too.

Most of us have this inaccurate notion that life is improving for girls, so much so that journalists write stern reports on the slide in boys’ achievement in high school, apparently caused by the boys’ notion that studying hard is uncool. It was a concern never expressed in the days when girls were expected to be second-best and work on their prettiness instead of their marks.

The content of “Because I am a Girl,” then, feels profoundly shocking – and serves as a call to action. The report states that up to 100 million girls are aborted or killed as infants because of their gender. They are the “disappeared.” If a girl lives, she is at particular risk at every stage of her life.

Worldwide, 70 per cent of the 1.5 billion people who live on only $1 a day are female. And despite the fact that the UN has repeatedly said that the key to raising populations from poverty is to educate neglected girls, 96 million women ages 15 to 24 worldwide cannot read or write, a number almost double that of males. There are 62 million girls not even attending primary school.

In many industrialized countries, girls’ reading scores are well above boys’. Girls prosper in school and university (waiting for the blank wall of the workplace, where they will again come second to men). Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, a World Values Survey showed that two-thirds of male respondents said university education should be prioritized for boys. One in 13 American males held this opinion. Amazing.

Pregnancy is the leading cause of death in young women ages 15 to 19. Balance this against the U.S. statistic that murder is the leading cause of death among pregnant American women. If it isn’t health care or malnutrition, it is hatred that destroys pregnant women.

This violence begins very early. Nearly 50 per cent of sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15 or younger. These are children. Here I must add that I am increasingly astonished by what is being revealed to me by women my age (I am 47) about sexual attacks on them when they were children. If we fiercely repress these stories in Canada, imagine what it must be like in countries where little girls have no recourse, no health care, no rights.

We hear all the time about how we have ravaged the planet. In “Because I am a Girl,” we see how we have done the same with half our human beings, for reasons just as irrational and selfish.

Pleasingly, the report ends with a quote from a 17-year-old Canadian girl: “Girl power is about being yourself, sticking up for your rights, and not being afraid of the challenges that the world throws at you.”

Compare that to the heartbreaking Indian folk song. We have come far in Canada in helping our beloved girls. Let’s do more here, and even more internationally. Would AIDS, global warming and the Iraq war be nearly as grim if girls had been educated to assume equal prominence on the world stage?