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Concerns of the girl child

October 12, 2012

THE almost-fatal attack on Malala Yousufzai and her two classmates took place only two days before the first-ever International Day of the Girl Child on Oct 11. The outpouring of grief and rage across the country over the attempted killing of the young girl and Pakistan’s slide into extremism and intolerance is reassuring.

The tears and anger are important. But what is needed now is a firm determination by the Pakistani government, army and people to end the long and bloody cycle of terrorism, tragedy and violence. To say: ‘never again’. Never again will terrorists be allowed to kill innocent men, women and children in the name of a grotesque misinterpretation of religion. Never again will murderers be hailed as heroes while those who denounce and resist extremism are buried and forgotten. And never again will minorities be hunted down and persecuted.

Equally importantly, never again will girl children in Pakistan be ignored, neglected and marginalised. The United Nations decision to declare Oct 11 the International Day of the Girl Child has particular resonance in Pakistan.

As Malala recuperates in hospital, the world will be looking to Pakistan to put the plight of its girl children at the top of the domestic social agenda.

It must do so immediately. Pakistan’s inability to provide a decent life to its girls and women has always been shocking to a closely watching world. Yes, the country can take pride in having had a female prime minister — and currently a female foreign minister and speaker of the National Assembly. This is commendable. But nobody is fooled: the world does not begin and end in the corridors of power in Islamabad.

Pakistan is not alone of course in its appalling treatment — or rather total neglect — of women and girls. The fact that the UN has set aside a special day for girls reflects an international consensus that more must be done to tackle what the UN gently describes as the “unique challenges” that girls face everywhere in the world.

Those challenges are enormous and include not only gender stereotyping and discrimination as regards schooling and access to food but also sexual violence, rape and so-called ‘honour killings’ which continue to shame many parts of the Muslim world.

The truth is that as governments draw up plans for growth and development, because of their gender and age, girls are quite simply invisible. Sometimes they are even killed before birth.

Whether in Pakistan, India, Japan or China, focusing on girls requires a change in mindsets and traditions as well as a transformation of structures, policies and values which put girl children at a disadvantage.

This is not going to happen overnight. But amid Malala’s tragedy it has been heartening to see and hear her father’s proud words about his daughter. Clearly, if girls are to take their rightful place in the world, they need supportive and caring parents. But the role of fathers is especially important.

Bringing attitudes towards women in conformity with 21st-century values must be done by governments and international organisations and also at the level of homes and schools. As the International Labour Organisation points out, gender inequalities take root at an early age and once in place they tend to produce long-term gender disparity.

The two themes of this year’s UN Day of the Girl Child are child labour and child marriage — practices described by UN officials as “a denial of the rights of children and an acute constraint to their full development”.

The statistics are alarming. Around 88 million of the world’s child labourers are girls. Child labour is a special problem in Pakistan and other parts of Asia where girls as young as 10 work as domestic servants.

Most girls are in the lowest paid, least secure jobs and find themselves constrained by gender inequality at home and in the workplace. Others who work in the home remain invisible and unaccounted for.

The ILO insists that the benefits of investing in girl children — for their families, communities and society — have long been evident. However, inequalities in access to education and in outcomes mean that 64 per cent of illiterate adults are women. And the current global economic crisis is not making things easier.

Early marriage is another scourge. Each year, more than 10 million girls are forced to marry as children, which usually means an end to their education, and a life of ill-health and poverty.

Dealing with the specific needs and rights of girls is key to breaking cycles of poverty with benefits for everyone — boys and girls, men and women. For example, as a country’s primary school enrolment rate for girls increases, so does its gross domestic product per head. In fact, education is one of the best ways to help girls move from poverty to opportunity.

An educated girl will be more likely to marry later in life and have fewer, healthier children. Small wonder then that the Taliban believe — as their spokesman told a reporter — that Malala’s crusade for education rights is an “obscenity”.

She won international recognition for highlighting Taliban atrocities in Swat, but Malala’s campaign echoes the aspirations of millions of girls in Pakistan and other Muslim countries who want to study, work and have a better life.

Their voice needs to be heard and amplified. The current outrage in Pakistan needs to be translated into new girl-focused policies and action. It is not enough to weep. It is time to act.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.