United Nations

At the UN, young girls voice concerns about grown-up issues

UNITED NATIONS - Speaking bravely through her tears, 17-year-old Kemmeh Damba-Danjo from the Gambia told a room full of government delegates and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives a story as sad as it is common - the tale of her 14-year-old cousin's death from birth complications. Her cousin had become pregnant by a boy who had broken his promise to marry her. She died, as so many teenage mothers do, within weeks of giving birth, from complications in delivery. Her infant died shortly thereafter.

If the baby had lived, said Ms. Damba-Danjo, who is both working and going to school, she would have taken the child as her own. She is already raising the child of her sister, who also died following pregnancy due to problems arising from her female genital cutting, a controversial tradition referred to by the United Nations as female genital mutilation (FGM), which is practiced in some parts of Africa.

"For how long should girls continue to die from pregnancy?" asked Ms. Damba-Danjo said at a 4 March 1998 roundtable discussion called "Listen to Girls." " I am appealing to all girls to prevent themselves from this problem."

Ms. Damba-Danjo was one of 15 young women who came from all over the world for the 42nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The girls were sponsored by the NGO Committee on UNICEF's Working Group on Girls (NGO-WGGs) and their stories illustrated the human side of the reports and statistics which abounded at the meetings and workshops held here 2-13 March 1998.

Following the schedule determined by the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Commission met this year to assess progress in addressing four interrelated themes: human rights of women, women and armed conflict, violence against women, and the girl child.

Many agreed that these areas overlap considerably, and some said that the issues of the girl child are simply an earlier stage in a cycle of issues that affect women.

"The rights and needs of girls are central to the achievement of the human rights of women, the elimination of violence against women and protection of women in armed conflict," said Sree Gururaja, senior adviser on Gender and Development for UNICEF. "The themes should be considered in an interrelated manner."

In "Clearing a Path for Girls," a report published by the NGO Working Groups on Girls in New York and Geneva (WGGs), 248 NGO respondents from 87 countries identified areas of most and least progress regarding the situation of girls in their countries. Problems frequently mentioned were health and nutrition; economic exploitation; negative cultural attitudes and practices including FGM, early marriage, and adolescent pregnancy; and the "entrenched and widespread discrimination against women" which "constituted the single most persistent and deeply-rooted cause of all problems facing girls."

The most notable improvement for girls worldwide, according to the report, is in primary education, where enrollments for girls have increased substantially since 1990. At the secondary level, however, the dropout rate for girls remains high because of early marriage, pregnancy, work, or the irrelevance of curricula. The most distressing trend identified by the report was the lack of progress in protecting girls from violence, which is sometimes culturally accepted and not considered a crime.

Sexual abuse also continues due to taboos which keep it from being reported. The Commission's NGO expert panelist on the Girl Child, Teresita Silva of Childhope, a Philippines-based NGO, said the problem is pervasive in her native land and victims are reluctant to come forward. "Sexual exploitation occurs in families by fathers, stepfathers, older brothers," said Ms. Silva. "Even police, teachers and pastors are involved."

To combat the problems facing girls - and subsequently women -NGOs involved with these issues said empowerment and education are the keys to building the self-esteem necessary for girls to understand and assert their rights and to act on behalf of their own advancement.

"So important is the education of girls," said a statement to the Commission by the Bahá'í International Community, "that if a lack of resources forces a choice, parents are advised to consider giving first priority to the education of their daughters."

The visiting girls, who represented eight different countries (Armenia, Brazil, Chile, the Gambia, Nepal, Singapore, the UK, and the USA) and ranged in age from 13 to 18, echoed these concerns at the roundtable discussion on 4 March. Speaking mainly about the related problems of low self-esteem and teenage pregnancy, these young women were themselves manifestations of the empowerment and education they were advocating.

"All girls need to go to school," said Milena Dalmaschio Silva, 18, of Brazil, whose participation was sponsored by the Bahá'í International Community, a member of the NGO-WGGs. "They are potential educators of the whole family."

"Education for a girl is education for her children in the future," said Adeline Koay, a 14-year-old from Singapore, also sponsored by the Bahá'í Community. She said some families don't send their girls to school for fear they will be sexually abused or harassed. Limitations in educational opportunity have an impact on a girl's self-esteem, Ms. Koay said. Thirteen-year-old Sonia Ong, also of Singapore, added: "Education and training are the key to widening women's role and improving their status in society."

On the whole, reports to the Commission on women's progress since the 1995 Beijing Conference were encouraging. According to "Mapping Progress," a report by the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), 70 percent of 187 governments have created national plans to address the needs of women in their countries. NGOs have contributed greatly to this success. Women's NGOs have had noticeable influence on legislation in the areas of domestic violence, trafficking in women and children, reproductive health, political participation and property rights, the report said.

- By Veronica Shoffstall