The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nation’s sexual and reproductive health agency, released its State of World Population 2020 report titled “Against my will: defying the practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality”. According to the report, millions of women and girls are subjected to harmful practices every year, against their will but with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends and communities.
The report shows that there are at least 19 harmful practices against women and girls which are considered human rights violations, ranging from breast ironing to virginity testing. These practices affect the girls both physically and emotionally, leaving them with “lasting trauma, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential”, says Dr. Natalia Kanem, the Executive Director of UNFPA.
The report focuses on three of the most prevalent harmful practices; female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and extreme bias against daughters in favor of sons.
In 2020, an estimated 4.1 million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation across the globe. Every day, almost 33,000 girls under the age of 18 are married off to men much older than them. Furthermore, there are more than 140 “missing females” because of the extreme preference for sons over daughters in some countries. This preference has fueled gender-biased postnatal and prenatal sex selection and contributes to their extreme neglect leading to their death as children.
The report also showed that in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, excess female mortality of girls below the age of 5 is under 3%. The skewed numbers translate to long-term shifts in proportions of women and men in some countries’ populations. In some countries, this leads to a “marriage squeeze” as there are more prospective grooms than there are prospective brides, resulting in child marriages and human trafficking for marriage.
While some of the harmful practices are decreasing in countries where they were most prevalent, the population growth means more girls being born. If urgent action isn’t taken, this would mean more girls being subjected to the same harmful practices in the coming decades.
Countries like Pakistan that have signed international treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have taken on the responsibility to end the harm. However, as we all know, laws alone are never enough. Research shows that bottom-up, grassroots approaches are better suited for bringing about change.
“We must tackle the problem by tackling the root causes, especially gender-biased norms. We must do a better job of supporting communities’ own efforts to understand the toll these practices are taking on girls and the benefits that accrue to the whole of society by stopping them,” said Dr. Kanem.
Certain economies and legal systems actually support these gender-based norms. As the report points out, these systems need to be restructured to ensure every woman has equal opportunities. For instance, inheritance and property laws in countries like ours are a powerful incentive for families to prefer sons over daughters and encourage child marriage.
By keeping girls in school longer and teaching them life skills, while at the same time engaging men and boys in social change, can help end female genital mutilation and child marriage within 10 years. The report shows that 84 million girls can be protected from this suffering with investments totaling $3.4 billion a year till 2030.
However, the most recent strike to these efforts has been the Covid-19 pandemic which threatens to reverse the progress made in ending some of the harmful practices. A recent analysis shows that an additional 13 million girls will be forced into child marriage and 2 million more girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation by 2030 if services and programs remain closed for another six months.
Dr. Kanem says, “The pandemic both makes our job harder and more urgent as so many more girls are now at risk. We will not stop until the rights, choices and bodies of all girls are fully their own.”