“Thank heaven for little girls,” Maurice Chevalier sang in the Oscar-winning 1958 movie musical Gigi. But even in his gentlemanly French-accented voice, there was the hint of a leer, a premonition of what is to come. What Chevalier’s character is actually most grateful for about little girls is that “they grow up in the most delightful way” to become beautiful women, with eyes that “flash and send you crashing through the ceiling.”
This sexualizing is relatively tame and, in its day, was hardly considered abusive. But it doesn’t take much effort to draw a line from the aging rake of Gigi to U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who feels no embarrassment in commenting prominently on the weight and appearance of individual women.
The truth is that few people face tougher odds for achieving fulfillment and happiness in life than girls.
The truth—worth acknowledging on October 11, the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child—is that few people face tougher odds for achieving fulfillment and happiness in life than girls. In all countries, it remains largely a man’s world, based on men’s rules. And it’s a world in which women, even those running for president themselves, face judgments based on their dress, their looks, and their stamina—or presumed lack of it.
Most girls probably only dimly perceive their disadvantage at a young age. But it’s rare that they pass many birthdays without learning the host of constraints on their aspirations. In many countries, this includes the likelihood that their parents or other family members will choose their husband, sometimes when they barely have had time to fully experience childhood.
Why the Day of the Girl Child?
The Day of the Girl Child offers a moment to think of girls not as future wives and mothers—or potential beauties—but as human beings endowed with rights equal to those of any other humans in the world. These include (or should include) the right to education, to decent health care, to safety from sexual violence, to any expression of sexuality of their choosing, and to their own choices of when and with whom to become a spouse and have a child. And that means enforced age-of-marriage laws, age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education, and access to reproductive health care—including safe and affordable contraception when the time comes to need that.
The Day of the Girl Child offers a moment to think of girls not as future wives and mothers—or potential beauties—but as human beings.
Has there been progress for girls in achieving such rights? Of course. Girls undoubtedly can hope for better prospects and more satisfying lives in most societies today than was true decades and centuries ago. In recent years, school enrollment rates have risen on average, and rates of child marriage have declined somewhat. Girls face a future where reproductive health care, including access to contraception, is more likely to be available than in the past. And in some countries, there are more legal protections for females who choose to marry whomever they please, including other females, or to choose their gender.
But progress is slow, and for millions of girls in the world there is little prospect for a future of self-determination and freedom from unwanted pregnancy or safety from the threat of sexual abuse and violence. The world as a whole doesn’t take seriously enough these rights and girls’ inability to exercise them in much of the world.
Girls and the Environment
Is there an environmental component to the needs of girls, an “earth moment” in the Day of the Girl Child? The point of the Day is not the planet’s well-being, but that of girls. Yet there are reasons beyond the obvious interests of girls themselves why environmentalists should take a particular interest in their well-being and right to choose their own destinies.
We identified more than a dozen recent peer-reviewed scientific studies that found correlations between the empowerment of women and benefits to the environment.
In the Worldwatch Institute’s Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project, we identified more than a dozen recent peer-reviewed scientific studies that found correlations between the empowerment of women and benefits to the environment. (We annotated the best of these studies in our report.) Nations whose parliaments contain higher proportions of women are more likely to ratify environmental treaties, one study found. Community forest conservation organizations with female leadership were more effective at protecting forests in India and Nepal, another reported. (For more examples of such studies, see the report or this blog on the FPESA website.)
There’s also little doubt that girls who can realize their dreams will also have fewer children, and have them later in their lives, than girls who cannot. A recent study by the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women of the costs to countries of child marriage found that the most significant economic benefit from prevention comes from the lower fertility that results when marriage is delayed until adulthood. Beyond economic benefits, there are undoubtedly environmental benefits to this reduced fertility as well.
Girls aren’t looking for our sympathy or our charity. But they could use our attention—and our pressure on policymakers to consider their needs, their rights, and the contribution they can make to a better world. A good meditation on the Day of the Girl Child is to consider what the world would be like if girls everywhere could look forward to opportunities and futures of their own choosing.
Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment project. You can read his latest report, Assessing the Science, free online.