Food distribution in the average household of a developing country is frequently skewed in favour of the male because it is the male who is viewed as the earner or potential earner in the family. Likewise in the developed countries, the "burnt chop" winds up on the female's plate rather than the male's.
BY NEERA SOHONI
MY first experience of being devalued as a girl came when I was 11 and my brother had just been born. Our family cook in India who had cared for me all my life broke the news gleefully: "We have what we wanted -- a son and heir. You poor loser!"
Today, as the mother of three daughters, my preoccupation with the global status of girls is not accidental. For I believe it is the girl who conditions and shapes the woman. And although feminists and development planners may be aware of that connection, they have not honored it sufficiently. The girl is as invisible in the development discourse of today as the woman was prior to the feminist movement of the 1960s.
Yet it is girls -- not women -- who suffer most from inequitable development because they must deal with the double bind of age and gender discrimination. Nor is this process confined to the developing world. Even where poverty and survival are not overriding concerns, the gender factor inhibits equal opportunities and aspirations for girls.
Given the privileged status males occupy over females, it's not surprising that in most of the world, parents want sons more than daughters. Even in cultures where there is no special preference for sons there is no active preference for daughters.
In traditional cultures, parents follow strict nutritional and intercourse guidelines believed to facilitate the conception of a male child. But even in developed countries, anecdotal and other evidence points to the widespread use of baking powder, epsom salt, and vinegar douches as well as certain coital positions to enhance the probability of a male fetus. In recent decades technology has made it possible to use genetic planning and sex screening to prevent the female from ever being conceived, much less from being born.
Data from an Indian hospital documented by Ramanamma and Bambawale show that of a sample of 700 women, only four per cent of those expecting daughters chose to carry their pregnancies to term. The remaining 96 per cent had abortions. By contrast, 100 per cent of those expecting sons carried their pregnancies to term, even when a genetic disorder was considered likely.
Similarly in the United States, studies reveal a preference for male babies over female babies, especially when the baby is the first or only child. Asked how many children he had fathered, former American boxing champion Muhammad Ali answered unabashedly, "One boy and seven mistakes." Male preference also biases the grieving process. An American study of 236 parents who had experienced the death of a child concluded that parental grief was greater for the male than the female child.
For centuries, popular sayings and practices around the world have echoed this gender bias. In ancient Greece and Rome, mothers were advised to "expose" the female infant -- to let her die. Siring a female child was a shameful act for which Hassidic Jews occasionally flogged a father. In Britain, the birth of a prince earned a 21 gun salute, a princess only 10. A Dutch proverb declares that "A house full of daughters is like a cellar full of sour beer." In China daughters are referred to as "maggots in the rice"; among the Zulus in South Africa, as "merely weeds."
A girl's inferior status is rooted not just in her sexuality but in her capacity to bear children and the implied threat to her virginity. Ironically, for all its indispensable social value, the reproductive capacity of the female does little to enhance a girl's status or worth either in the family or the society. If anything, it only places further constraints on her in terms of food taboos and other more repressive practices such as foot-binding, purdah (enforced seclusion), early marriage, and genital mutilation, all of which are aimed at controlling her mobility and sexuality.
Food distribution in the average household of a developing country is frequently skewed in favour of the male -- both the adult and the child -- because it is the male who is viewed as the earner or potential earner in the family. Likewise in the developed countries, the "burnt chop" winds up on the female's plate rather than the male's. And in the latter countries it is girls who suffer the highest incidence of self-inflicted eating disorders such as anorexia, which are closely linked to low self-esteem and imaging pressures.
Once outside the home, girls invariably occupy a lower status than boys in school despite rigorous efforts by governments to enforce gender neutral access goals. According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization some 60 million girls in the world have no access to primary schooling, compared to 40 million boys. Fewer girls enrol in school and far more drop out than boys. Even in American schools, girls do not receive the same quality or even quantity of education as their male peers, according to the American Association of University Women.
Meanwhile, time use studies in Africa and Asia but also in Australia, Canada and Italy show that the female child bears a heavier burden of unremunerated or low-paid household or extra household work than her male counterpart. In the United States, parents are more apt to pay sons for housework than daughters. The message boys receive is that they should work "for pay" while girls should work "out of love." While girls may feel their contributions are unrecognized and largely unrewarded, boys learn early the value of their labour and the importance of linking work to wages.
What today's girls learn from a sexist upbringing ultimately affects tomorrow's woman and tomorrow's mother. How can the chain be broken? The first step is to view not just adulthood but childhood through the prism of gender. This means subjecting all planning, programming and evaluation of development activities geared to children to a gender analysis and fostering vigorous compensatory programmes to remedy the effect of earlier male-biased approaches. Most important, however, it means acknowledging the girl's basic human right to a gender just childhood and identifying and condemning those factors that discriminate against girls in the rearing process.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first global document that acknowledges the need for a gender- just childhood. Adopted in 1989 and ratified by 150 countries, it is a veritable Magna Carta for children that specifies the rights to survival, protection and development of every child, regardless of sex. Its single weakness is that it fails to identify let alone criticize sexist parenting as a crime against children.
The Human Rights Declaration prepared by the Human Rights Conference in Geneva in 1993 goes a step further by singling out the human rights of the girl child along with those of women as an "inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." But here too, the document affords little protection to the girl when it comes to asserting her rights within the sanctity of the family. While she can take a school or an employer to court for creating a discriminatory environment, she has no such legal recourse against her parents.
Although it is far safer to challenge gender bias in the budgetary allocations of government-run health and education programmes, this approach will rarely go beyond producing cosmetic changes in the lifestyle and entitlement of girls. What will really count is challenging the patriarchal values embedded in the religious, cultural and socio-economic forces that shape people's private lives.
This is the real dilemma before any United Nations sponsored effort to ensure a gender-just childhood. Should the explosive issue arise at the Beijing Conference, it is bound to provoke charges of cultural or ideological imperialism. Yet, the world can no longer shirk the responsibility of effectively mediating between the contesting claims of national, cultural or the family's autonomy, and the human rights of girls. Only by a collective, concerted and sustained effort aimed at radically overhauling patriarchal values will girls be able to realize a truly gender-just childhood.
Until recently, feminists and development planners have suffered from a false complacency that the gains made by women will automatically trickle down to girls. In fact, this trickle-down theory has proven to be as ineffectual in women's development as it has proven in economic development. Whether in the developing or the developed world, where women enjoy high status, girls do not automatically share that experience. On the other hand, strategies for empowering girls are the beginning of women's empowerment.
Neera Sohoni is an affiliated scholar at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender and a contributing editor of Pacific News Service. Her first book, The Burden of Girlhood: A Global Perspective, (Third Party, Inc., Oakland, California) was just released.
Choices,A Publication of the United Nations Development Programme