I’ve been reading about the perception and treatment of women throughout North American history in the (what seems like endless) studying I’ve been doing for my last exam in March. When I look at how far we’ve come from how women were viewed in 18th century North America, I’m thankful. Then, however, I read an article aboutÂ “The 5 Worst Places to be a Girl”Â (lifstyle.sympatico.msn.ca under their “Charitable Living” section) and wonder whether we’ve really come all that far.
The article lists five countries in Africa, each with an issue facing their girls. I’d like to summarize some of it here:
Sierra Leone (Civil War): The end of a civil war in 2002 left “a generation scarred, displaced and forced to rebuild their lives from scratch.” Girls are especially vulnerable;Â those who do survive the highÂ infant mortality rates seldom live more than 42 years.
Burkina Faso (HIV and AIDS): “[N]o one has borne the brunt of the disease [in Burkina Faso] like young women.” Women aged 15 to 24 here are eight times more likely than their male counterparts to be infected. Some husbands who must leave home for weeks at a time to work to support their families frequent sex workers, returning home to infect their young wives.
Guinea-Bissau (Female Genital Mutilation): It is estimated that 50% of the women in Guinea-Bissau have undergone FGM, typically between age six and 14, as a ceremonial initiation into womenhood. Girls can contract disease when non-sterile blades are used and many suffer long term psychological and other problems.
Niger (Early Marriage): A study in rural Niger in 2003 revealed more than two thirds of girls were married and more than halfÂ had their first child before the age of 16. While a deeply rooted tradition, early motherhood increase health risks considerably for both mother and baby.
Mali (Lack of Education): Fewer than 50% of Mali’s girls are enrolled in school; these girls are required to stay home and work while their brothers leave for school every day. Only 16.9% of Mali’s adolescent girls are literate and only 2% achieve post-secondary education.
Before saying anything else, I must note that while the issues are serious, there is hope: manyÂ displaced children are returning to their homes in Sierra Leone,Â governments have been working to bring laws against FGM and humanitarian organizations are increasing awareness of education, for a few examples.Â
Obviously, coverage of issues unique to girls in these countries is not evidence that both males and females don’t face struggles just about anywhere in the world. I thinkÂ it’s interesting, though,Â to realize that some of the main gender issues faced by these girls areÂ issues that, as a women in North American, I will never have to even consider facing.
I’m never really sure how to respond when it comes to being faced by something like this. In a lot of ways, I think these are challenges that charity alone is never going to solve; it’s going to take advocating for justice and, in some cases, even culture change. We all have the tendency to be pretty defensive of our culture sometimes and, when faced with issues like these, there’s something in me that wonders what these girls and their families would do if we were to uproot the cultural foundations of some of these practices. It would undeniably create a better world for some, but at what cost for a culture?Â Where, if anywhere, is there a line between our ideas of just living or respect for human rightsÂ and respect forÂ deeply rooted tradition?
I’m not suggesting that harmful practices, like female genital mutilation for example, be condoned in any way, but I am wondering where we can find the balance between changing and respecting a culture? Are we even able to do that for ourselves?
Until next time…