Feticide and infanticide
Gender discrimination begins early, even before the birth of a girl child. Modern diagnostic tools make it possible to determine a child’s sex in the earliest phase. In many societies, these techniques are often misused for female feticide. Although there is no conclusive evidence to confirm it, birth histories and census data reveal an unusually high proportion of male births and male children under-five in China and India, indicating sex-selective feticide and infanticide in the world’s two most populous countries, despite commitments to eradicate these practices in both countries. Fortunately, these are not serious problems in Bangladesh.
The early years
A principal priority for the early years of childhood and adolescence is ensuring access to, and completion of, quality primary and secondary education. With some exceptions, it is mostly girls who are deprived of educational opportunities.
Primary education: For every 100 boys out of school worldwide, there are 115 girls in the same situation. Though the gender gap has been increasingly closing over the decades, nearly 1 out of every 5 girls who enrolls in primary school in developing countries does not complete the primary education. Lack of primary education deprives a girl of the opportunity to develop to her fullest potential. Studies have shown that educated women are less likely to die in childbirth and are more likely to send their children to school. Evidence indicates that under-five mortality rate falls by about half for mothers with primary school education.
Secondary education: Recent Unicef estimates show that, on an average, 43 percent of girls of the appropriate age in the developing countries attend secondary school. There are many reasons for this low attendance rate. Because of greater emphasis on universal primary education, many developing countries have neglected to allocate adequate resources to increase enrolment and attendance in secondary education. Childhood marriage is another reason. Parental inability to meet educational expenses due to poverty is also a reason.
Secondary education has many benefits. It is most effective in delaying the age at which a young woman first gives birth, and it can enhance freedom of movement and maternal health. It strengthens women’s socioeconomic and political participation, and also enhances their status both in the family and in the larger society.
Among the greatest threats to adolescent development are abuse, exploitation and violence, and the lack of vital knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, including HIV/AIDS.
Child marriage and premature parenthood: Globally, 36 percent of women aged 20-24 were married or in union before they reached their 18th birthday, and most such marriages take place in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This problem is serious in Bangladesh. Parents often consent to child marriages out of economic necessity, or because they believe that marriage will protect girls from sexual assault.
Premature pregnancy and motherhood are inevitable consequences of child marriage. An estimated 14 million adolescents between 15-19 give birth each year. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than women in their twenties. If a mother is under 18, her baby’s chance of dying in the first year is 60 percent higher than that of a baby born to a mother who is older than 19. Even if the child survives, he/she is more likely to suffer from low birth weight, under nutrition, and late physical and cognitive development.
Sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking: The younger girls are when they first have sex, the more likely it is that intercourse has been imposed on them. According to a World Health Organisation study, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of physical and sexual violence in some countries during 2002.
An estimated 1.8 million children are involved in commercial sex work. Many are forced into it, either by being sold into sexual slavery by desperately poor families or being abducted and trafficked into brothels or other exploitative environments. Children exploited in the commercial sex industry are subjected to neglect, sexual violence, and physical and psychological abuse. In Bangladesh, sexual exploitation and trafficking are serious problems. For example, every year, an estimated 20,000 women and children are trafficked from Bangladesh. During the last 30 years, more than a million women have been trafficked to India, Pakistan, and the Middle East.
Sexual and reproductive health: Because unprotected sex carries the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, knowledge of sexual and reproductive health is essential for the safety of young people. Although information alone cannot provide protection, it is certainly a first step. Nonetheless, adolescents around the world continue to have limited knowledge of reproductive health issues and the risks they face.
HIV/Aids: By 2005, nearly half of the 39 million people with HIV were women. In parts of Africa and the Caribbean, young women (aged 15-24) are up to six times more likely to be infected than young men their age. One reason is physiological — women are more than twice as likely as men to become infected with HIV during sex. The other crucial factor is social — gender discrimination in patriarchic societies denies women the right to say “no” to men’s demands for sex. Promiscuous behaviour of men is also a factor. High rates of illiteracy among women prevent them from knowing about the risks of HIV infection and possible protection strategies. A survey of 24 sub-Saharan countries reveals that more than two-thirds of young women lack clear knowledge of HIV transmission. Even though it is not yet a serious problem in Bangladesh, we face potentially serious risks because of high rate of HIV/AIDS in neighbouring India.
The dramatic rise in infection among women increases the risks for children. Infants become infected through their mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. In 2005, more than 2 million children aged 14 years or younger were living with HIV.
Motherhood and old age
Two critical periods in many women’s lives, when the pernicious effects of both poverty and inequality can combine, are motherhood and old age.
Maternal mortality: It is estimated that each year more than half a million women — roughly one woman every minute — die as a result of pregnancy related complications and childbirth. About 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, with over 90 percent of those in Africa and Asia. Two-thirds of maternal deaths in 2000 occurred in 13 of the world’s poorest countries. The same year, India alone accounted for one-quarter of all maternal deaths. In Bangladesh, maternal mortality is 360 per 100,000. One out of every 16 sub-Saharan African women dies as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, compared to just 1 out of every 4,000 in industrialised countries. Moreover, motherless newborns are between 3 to 10 times more likely to die than newborns whose mothers are alive. Many of these women’s lives could be saved with access to basic health care services, including skilled birth attendants, and emergency obstetrics care.
Women in old age: Elderly women often face double discrimination because of both gender and age. Women tend to live longer than men, and they generally lack control of family resources and face discrimination from inheritance laws. Many older women are forced into poverty at a stage of life when they are most vulnerable. Only a few developing countries have safety nets for older people in the form of non-contributory or means-tested pensions. Bangladesh also has no such scheme.
Grandmothers in particular possess a great deal of knowledge and experience related to all aspects of maternal and child care. They are often a mainstay of child care for working parents. Experience has shown that children’s rights are advanced when programs initiated to benefit children and families also include elderly women.
It is clear that women face discrimination from the period of being conceived until death. Women of all ages have to pay for such inequalities, often with their lives. The consequences of the prejudice are very serious for an economically backward country like Bangladesh. For example, the endemic malnutrition that prevails in the society due to deprivation of women saps the productivity of the population, creating serious obstacles for the progress of the nation. To overcome such obstacles, discrimination against women throughout the lifecycle must be ended, and opportunities created for them. This will, in turn, require ending of patriarchy, and the National Girl Child Day is celebrated every year on September 30 to create awareness about it.
Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar is President, The Girl Child Advocacy Forum. This article is based on The State of the World’s Children 2007.