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‘You are Our Daughters’

Keynote address delivered by Dr. Subhangi M.K. Herath, senior lecturer in Sociology, University of Colombo at the ceremony held to mark the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2012 at the BMICH


Dr. Subhangi M.K. Herath

United Nations’ General assembly held in December 2011, taking into consideration a proposal made to the United Nations by UN’s Committee on the Status of Women supported by its member countries, declared October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. Today we celebrate its inception. United Nations has announced ‘Ending Child marriage’ as this year’s theme. Sri Lanka, as a member country of UN, with the initiation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Child Development, has chosen a highly appropriate theme, ‘You are Our Daughter’ as the theme for the year.

United Nations declare a special day for a particular group of people when this group is identified as underprivileged or having a lower social status that need to be enhanced or that they are a group that need exclusive consideration. Caroline Bird in the cover page of her reputed book ‘Born Female’, writes, “You are exploited, brainwashed and underprivileged if you are born female”. Is this the fate of all girl children born to this world?

The countries that consider a birth of a girl as a sin and a curse are not limited to the Asian region. It is not surprising to see that womanhood was considered a sin and a curse in countries such as China where the girl child was made to wear shoes made of iron in order to make her world smaller, Japan where she was swaddled for the purpose of controlling her activity, the Medieval Europe where her spirituality was considered a curse and she was burnt alive, Europe and South American colonies where she was seen as a mere sexual object and therefore her space was limited, neighbouring India where her birth itself was deemed a curse and was killed at the birth or even prior to birth, African and Middle Eastern region where female genital mutilation is thought to be a practice that boost her sexual significance. Yet, even in societies where oppressive traditions and customs against women and girl children were not accepted or even discarded, it is not possible to believe that girls were treated with unreserved equality. The reason is that all nontraditional social institutions also are infested with oppressive habits and traditions concerning girl child.

Sri Lankan history does not demonstrate such distinctive discriminatory practices against the girl child. Birth of a child was considered a blissful occasion and there are no adequate evidence to say that gender difference was significant here. A noticeable level of gender equity which existed with regard to areas such as land tenure patterns, lineage and inheritance, marital laws and matrimonial rights and the unique Kandyan dowry system provide evidence to believe that some level of equity had existed.

Feminist groups

In 1964, at the vote on the Civil Rights Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, 81 year old Howard W. Smith, chairman of the rules committee, proposing an amendment to the bill on employment which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion or national origin, proposed that it should also include prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex (Bird: 1968). This proposal was based on a great humanitarian ideology which is that a human being should be valued purely on the basis of his/her individual talents and skills but nothing else.

This was a time when in almost all modern institutions in America such as education, employment, law, administration and politics, gender based discriminations were highly apparent and women were made extremely underprivileged. However, it was not only sexist groups in the U.S. that came forward to defeat this humanitarian proposal. Feminist groups also were in the opposition. There is an extremely significant element here; that is that men and women could be treated totally equally only when equalities prevail in the social, economic, political and cultural milieus in which they live and affect them. By this period, feminist movement in America was achieving certain special rights on behalf of women. One possible consequence of such an amendment to the Civil Rights Bill could be that they would lose these unique rights they gained.

Do women and girl children owe to have distinct rights?

Woman and man are two biologically different individuals. Accordingly, there physiological construction and the biological needs become dissimilar. It is with regard to this situation that the ‘difference’ is significant. Even in a society where a girl is well protected, her security is fully assured and she is given absolute freedom to achieve her personal and social goals, this difference is significant. For instance, she may have specific health and sanitary requirements and a uniform to suit her physical body. In a society where social and cultural differences oppress women, further differentiations may be needed to ensure she achieve her rights. Having to assure her security is one such example.

Equal treatment of the girl child should not be misunderstood. What is meant here is the equality within the difference. A girl is certainly different from a boy. Nevertheless, such difference cannot be a reason to harass her, to deprive her educational opportunities, to deny educational and other choices and chances, to force her for child marriage and dispossess her of her childhood or to rob her artistic, creative, technical and leadership skills.

Simone de Beauvoir in her ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful daughter’ (1959) magnificently explains how a girl child transforms her life according to social cultural requirements. Even though this is an expression of the European social cultural context, this well stands for the Sri Lankan society. She presents a realistic analysis of the life of a girl. A life of a girl fundamentally differs from that of a boy and plunge her within two worlds, public and private along aspects such as the need to have love and protection from parents, concern about the physical appearance, feeling of shame and guilt, training to become a wife, mother and a housewife, educational goals, constraints regarding social association, dilemmas in reaching adolescence, anticipations about marriage etc.

Educational and social goals

She is pressurized by exposing her to two gigantic social roles; on the one hand the social expectation of becoming a good daughter, wife, mother and housewife, and on the other hand, achieving educational and professional success. Writing about her adolescence Simone de Beauvoir (1963, 99- 106) says, “I was going through a difficult period. I looked awful; …on my face and the back of my neck there were pimples which I kept picking at nervously…. My mother, overworked, took little trouble with my clothes: my ill-fitting dresses accentuated my awkwardness. Embarrassed by my body, I developed phobias…’Don’t scratch your pimples; don’t twitch your nose’ my father kept telling me… pass remarks about my complexion, my acne, my clumsiness which only made my misery worse…my reading was supervised through the same strictness”.

I quote these words of Beauvoir to say that a girl’s life is full of personality conflicts. Needs of the childhood, gender specific dilemmas on the way to adolescence, specific socio-cultural expectations of the girl child and different criteria for future success that emerge from within, from the family and the society, lead her to face a massive crisis situation. She would only be able to take this situation as ‘normal’ only if the environment she lives in is ‘normal’ which means that she is socialized in an environment where she receives love, security and proper direction. An environment full of controversies such as family disputes, economic crises, educational dilemmas, unacceptable school conditions, different individuals she encounters, deviant social backgrounds etc. would challenge the processes of social adjustment and coping. This creates obvious constraints for her in reaching personal and social goals mentioned earlier.

We need to understand the girl child within this social context. We should rationally comprehend the situation the girl child face in the Sri Lankan society.

To be continued

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