A few years ago, I babysat two children on behalf of a friend who’d been asked to look after a relative’s son and daughter. It was instantly apparent to me that the girl, a five-year-old pack of dynamite, was more expressive and assertive than her older brother, about seven, who liked to sit by himself and negotiate tasks in his own thoughtful way.
He was painfully shy and cried often. He liked soft toys, the colour purple and though older, he welcomed his little sister’s help with his Maths homework.
And while this wasn’t of personal concern to me, it bothered the children’s parents quite visibly, particularly their father.
“I have to make sure he doesn’t become gay,” he stated one afternoon, disapprovingly wresting a plaything from the boy’s hands and thereby prompting the child’s tears.
They were uncomfortable words to hear spoken, and saddening because it was quite obvious to me that the rest of the boy’s childhood would be shaped around ensuring his conformity to prescribed standards of masculinity and maleness.
In turn, this would have adverse effects on his sister’s ability to navigate her own identity. For instance, she might be instructed not to speak as much or display her ebullient character so confidently; the idea being it showed her brother up and made him look like a ‘sissy’. A childhood of punishment for individuality and as a result, self-censorship, seemed inescapable for the pair.
International Day of the Girl
I think of this example in light of the fact that there now exist many initatives and activities leveraging girls’ needs, including the International Day of the Girl Child, a day that has been commemorated since 2012 to promote girls’ rights and highlight inequalities between girls and boys.
Indeed, it is a fact that to be born a girl predisposes many to hazards that manifest purely as a result of their sex, and the physiological and socio-cultural constructs thereof. Widely quoted statistics state that 39 000 girls are married off daily and become child brides. Due to a range of patriarchal biases and roles, girls have less access to education, and good quality of it, than boys. At the same time, female genital mutilation continues to be carried out in many parts of the continent, and the greater world, alongside a host of other abusive and invasive practices against girls.
Without doubt, the situation remains dire for many of the world’s girls; and this requires continual and urgent redress.
But yet a parallel truth runs for many boys subjected to abuse and torment. Boys are raped too, many forced into child marriage and other cultural customs, bullied, shamed and marginalised when they do not conform to an increasingly recommended brand of hypermasculinity that denounces the articulation of any traits and attributes deemed ‘feminine’ and ‘unmanly’.
The varied gendered issues we are dealing with do not simply emerge in adulthood. They go back to the ways we socialise children and sanction and prohibit certain behaviours. And this is why I continue to feel that a Day of the Girl means little without due consideration of boys. During such times, we are told that girls can do anything they set their minds to, that they can outdo boys, that they can conquer the world. While there may be some truth to these statements, they put a pressure on girls to be in fierce competition with boys, and also with each other. I think girls need to be told that regardless of what their aptitude is for different pursuits, they are simply valid as children and human beings. And the same goes for boys. Therefore, by omitting them from such discussions, there is tacit blame placed upon their shoulders for the crimes of patriarchy, which we again lay open for them to perpetuate if we do not make concerted efforts to reach out to them.
Over recent years, development discourse has adopted and adapted a new language of ‘male engagement’, of ‘men as partners’, and now with the recently launched UN campaign, ‘He for She’, there is more of a drive towards engaging influential males to stand with women and girls and call out patriarchy.
But there are many potential loopholes with this approach.
The first, for me being that it makes little sense to begin the fight against gendered imbalances in adulthood. We pass over boys’ interests and engagement as children, but call for robust involvement of men who are, as all adults, already deeply entrenched in their ideas about life and social roles.
This is far too late a time to start talking about change.
Secondly, such campaigns run the risk of disintegrating into spaces for male appropriation of feminine struggles. We saw it as Iceland, which eventually moved to invite women after mass public dissent, proposed a UN meeting to discuss gender equality with only male participants.
At a time when celebrities, both male and female, are undergoing intense scrutiny around their public articulation of feminist ideals and principles (Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, John Legend to name a few), a user-friendly-ready-to-go version of activism continues to grow. Hold up a placard to declare your sincerity, push a hashtag around, but be ready to challenge and question absolutely nothing about your own role in advancing systems of oppression, which include capitalism. And which feminism fights against.
And so what is it that I am calling for?
A world where the assertiveness of the five-year-old girl whose story I began with is not policed. A world where her brother can play with whatever makes him happy and make sense of his own reality as he chooses. A world where every child’s experiences matter and are validated.
Let’s remember that children are just that. Children.
Main photo is taken from www.siouxcityjournal.com