Prishani Naidoo, a 23-year-old South African, is worried about virginity testing. The practice is keeping sexually active girls out of high school in some rural areas in her country, but “nobody seems to be talking about it,” says Naidoo, sitting outside one of the many UN meeting rooms where last week’s Beijing+5 conference discussions on youth took place.
Just feet away, Abeer Musleh, a Palestinian, is railing against the restrictions on females in public spaces. At 24, Musleh is still forbidden to travel in the street alone at night. “If my cousin comes, I can go out with him, and he can go out by himself even though he is much younger,” says Musleh. Young girls “want to go out in the street and have entertainment after school,” she says, “but they are not allowed like the boys.”
Vivien Labaton, of the Third Wave Foundation, which introduces feminism to youth, works with relatively privileged Americans. If she is broaching the subject of feminism for the first time, Labaton might ask whether a girl has ever struggled with an eating disorder, whether she is treated the same as the boys in her family, whether she finds boys get more time on the playing field. “Then I say that their problems are not coincidental,” explains Labaton. “They’re all grounded in the same issues.”
The idea that gender discrimination also unites young women and teens across international borders has brought hundreds of young women to the world conference to update the work begun five years ago when the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women met in Beijing. That any discussion is happening at all across such vast social differences is sometimes startling. The six events hosted by the commission’s official Youth Caucus are held in English, a second or third language for most of the panelists from 19 countries.
But if participants come from strikingly varied cultures, they can often agree on the worst injustices facing girls worldwide, beginning even before girlhood, with the selective abortion of female fetuses and killing of infant girls. (Without any intervention, slightly more girls are born than boys; in India, there are now 927 females for every 1000 males.) Across the globe, young girls are more likely to be physically neglected than boys; in the Punjab, girls between two and four are twice as likely to die from childhood diseases; Bangladeshi girls are three times more likely to be undernourished than boys. In many of the poorest parts of the world, girls have no hope of attending school. Overall, only 46 percent of girls attend high school in developing countries.
Often these forces conspire to rob girls of any kind of childhood. A recent study of children in Mali, West Africa, found only one girl in a rural area attending school. Another 184, who ranged in age from eight to 15, had left to work in nearby towns. Early marriage, increasingly identified as a problem by international women’s rights advocates, is standard in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with as many as 88 percent of girls pushed into marriage before they hit 18 in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. A few marry as young as seven or eight and are betrothed even before they are born. For the youngest, the most gruesome consequence of early marriage is vesico-vaginal fistula, a tear in the wall between the vagina and the bladder caused by the pressure pregnancy puts on narrow, girlish hips. The constant dribble of urine that results can become grounds for divorce and social ostracism.
The fistula phenomenon, which fills an entire hospital in Ethiopia to capacity with girls awaiting surgery, is virtually unheard of in much of the world. Video accounts of the hospitalized girls both transfix young delegates and move them to action; a contingent is fighting for language within the Beijing+5 consensus document that would define sexual violence within marriage as a violation of human rights.
Selma Gasi, a Bosnian who just turned 20, is hoping to inspire the delegation to address sexual atrocities in war. Gasi describes the brutal murder of another Bosnian her age. Soldiers cut open her pregnant belly to settle a bet about the gender of the baby she was carrying, Gasi tells a horrified international audience. She instructs them to close their eyes and imagine their own bellies being cut open.
If Gasi can teach some conference-goers by transporting them from their relatively cushioned lives to war-torn Bosnia, she is getting something from them in return. “Here people are aware of how good they are,” says Gasi. “They are not afraid. At the meetings, a lot of girls from America are just asking questions, like one question a million times, asking until they understand. At first, I’m not sure I was supposed to ask. I was embarrassed. But I learned a lot how good I am.”
ADDITIONAL VOICE COVERAGE OF THE BEIJING+5 CONFERENCE:
Beating the Backlash by Jennifer Gonnerman
A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN’s Special Session on Women
Going After Globalization by Lenora Todaro
Feminists Trade Strategies for a Woman-Friendly World Economy
Rewiring the World by Meg Murphy
Technology Sparks Debate at Beijing+5
Worldwide Women by Jennifer Gonnerman
Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights