Earlier this month a certain girl in Uganda (let us call her Sara) declared, “I curse the day I was born a girl.”
Sara was born the eldest of 5 children, her father died last year, and her mother is HIV position. There is no money for clothes or shoes or school supplies. Also, there is no money for sanitary pads. (Men, try to stay with me!).
As almost any woman can attest, feminine hygiene products are something you take for granted, that is, until the moment you need them and don’t have them. For a young girl in Uganda this lack of access is not only uncomfortable, humiliating, and unhygienic – it also keeps you from school several days a month. This is one of the reasons girls in Uganda drop out of secondary school at a much higher rate than boys. Amidst these problems, this young lady is being pressured by men who say they will give her money and other goods in exchange for sex.
Sara is not alone in her regret of being born a girl. The truth is – at least for everywhere I have ever been - economic, social, and physical conditions seem to suck a bit more if you are woman. In case you are unsure, here is a journalist who chronicles the plight of women around the world.
In spite of all of this, women are amazing beings. We are diverse and beautiful and powerful. Girls like Sara have so much potential, so much to offer their communities and the world. Women should be proud.
A sense of worth is not only important through the lens of gender equity; it has real social environmental and economic impacts. For instance:
It is pretty clear that high fertility rates contribute to poverty and environmental degradation in sub-Saharan Africa. If a family perceives that a girl’s main value comes from transactional sex or from the amount her husband pays for her (bride price) or from her ability to push out babies, then it is likely she will bear children early and often. Yet if you increase a girl’s worth outside reproduction (through changing mindsets, increasing education, opening economic opportunity and so on), that increases the opportunity cost of having children, thus reducing the number of children she will want to have.
Now, you might think that if you just increased household income in general that that could increase gender equity and ultimately reduce birthrates. But I think you would be wrong. First, because if you increase the man’s income and not the woman’s, then you decrease the comparative value of her efforts outside reproduction. Secondly, (and more convincingly) this article explains how economic development in China and India has actually led to worse outcomes for women.
So, I think changing mindsets about the value of women matters.
Random example? This study of the spread of Brazilian cable television channels argues that the introduction of telenovelas (of all things!) reduced fertility rates amongst the rural poor. Why? Well, it altered how women view themselves and changed their aspirations (along with introducing them to melodrama and a whole other set of controversial gender roles, but that’s a different story).
Now, these telenovelas are ridiculous (and kind of smutty), but they also show urban, affluent women that have liberal values, less children, and are engaged in many self-actualizing activities (such as working). Rural Brazilian women began to absorb new points of view. As an effect of watching these telenovelas, women desired less kids. (In case you think this is an isolated case here is another study done in India on TV and gender norms)
I think that there is reason to believe that encouraging girls to be proud is more than just a feel-good project.
I grew up proud. Suzie and The Bear (aka Mom and Dad) were always going on about imagined strengths. “Ashley, you are such fast swimmer” – false. “Ashley, you are a wonderful singer” – false. “Ashley, you are so pretty in your blue-rimmed bifocals” – cruel and false. But somehow I was naive enough to let a few of their lies sink in. Every girl deserves that.
Ashley Rogers has spent the past year working as Program Manager of the Mpoma Community Initiative through the Global Health Corps (GHC) fellowship program. She received her Masters in Public Administration and Certificate in International Development Management from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.