In any context, human rights violations undercut the dignity, health, stability, and prosperity of individuals, communities, and entire countries. They are denounced by international human rights treaties and the governments that ratified them. But what about those violations that, while being opposed on a global stage, are sanctioned by parents, guardians, religious leaders, communities, customs, societal norms, or long-standing traditions?
In its 2020 State of World Population Report, Against My Will, UNFPA — the UN agency dedicated to reproductive health — examines the prevalence, roots, and drivers of three of 19 harmful practices defined under international human rights treaties: female genital mutilation, child marriage, and son preference.
Harmful practices are some of the most insidious human rights violations as they can seem well-intentioned in some cases by parents wanting to secure social, financial and physical safety for their daughters, in contexts where boys’ and men’s personhood is valued and respected more than that of girls and women. Around the age of 10, just when boys’ lives open up to new opportunities and the world around them, girls’ lives and opportunities are narrowed: Their bodies become viewed as property, for labor or for fertility. Girls and women who are living in poverty, in rural areas, or who are less educated are most at risk.
While we have seen progress in slowing the rate of some harmful practices, the sheer numbers of girls and women affected are on the rise due to population growth. This year alone, 4.1 million girls are at risk of genital mutilation, one in five marriages involves underage females, and missing female births amount to nearly 1.2 million annually. Times of crisis exacerbate these practices, and pandemics are no exception: UNFPA estimates that the ripple effects of COVID-19 will lead to an additional 2 million girls harmed by genital mutilation and an additional 13 million child marriages in the next decade.
The report does not mince words when talking about girls being mutilated, married off, or less valued than boys: forced, rejected, resected, denied, revoked, violated, unwanted, neglected, erased. Unequivocally, harmful practices undermine girls’ and women’s autonomy to make decisions about their bodies and their future — the report calls these losses “immeasurable.”
But the word that struck me the most was defiant. Girls and women who are survivors of these practices are not defined by them. They are resilient. They lead complex lives. And, as the report features, girls and women are leading the way to end these practices in their communities and on national and global scales. In countries in which female genital mutilation is prominent, seven in 10 girls and women think the practice should end, and this is likely on the rise, with adolescent girls at least 50 percent more likely than older women to oppose the practice.
In Indonesia, midwife Suci Maesaroh did not learn about female genital mutilation in her midwifery school. But as she began her career, it became clear that religious and cultural customs in her community still supported the practice, and she began to perform it as part of her duties. But when Maesaroh attended a UNFPA-supported workshop on female genital mutilation which underscored the physical and mental trauma from the practice, she immediately shifted her work to focus on education and advocacy in her community: “The next day, I promised myself I would not perform [female genital mutilation] anymore. And I started to inform my patients, to educate my parents on the health facts about [female genital mutilation].”
In India, Jasbeer Kaur was given an ultimatum by her husband’s family to terminate her pregnancy when she found out she was carrying triplets — all three, girls — or leave. She chose to leave, and raised three daughters on her own, working as an auxiliary nurse midwife to provide for her family. Her three daughters, Sandeep, Mandeep, and Pardeep are now grown women with lives and ambitions of their own, and speak of their mother with pride. “People here in my village often tell me, poor thing…you should have had at least one son instead of three daughters,” said Kaur. “And I tell them, spare me this rubbish! I am a woman and I am proud of having raised these girls who are now grown women.”
And here in the United States, Sherry Johnson was married off at age 11 to a trusted member of her community in Florida who had previously raped and impregnated her — a decision by her parents to protect the rapist from investigation. Sara Tasneem was married in Nevada at age 16 to a 28-year-old man who became controlling and abusive. Donna Pollard was married in Kentucky at age 16 to a 30-year-old man who worked in the behavioral health facility where she was receiving treatment. All three women eventually escaped their marriages and are now bold and vocal advocates to end child marriage in the U.S. “I do think we’re making progress,” said Pollard of her and other advocates’ work to drive legislative change. “In just a few years, we have seen multiple states at least modify their laws to increase the age and put [in place] judicial approval criteria instead of blind parental consent.”
But laws are only a piece of the equation. To achieve true, lasting change, girls need to be at the center. Their education, their health, their bodily autonomy, their safety, their economic rights, their power and their voice need to drive the agenda. And country governments need to uphold their responsibilities to deliver on the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals the world committed to reach by 2030, and again at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 last year — to end these practices for good.
The U.S. has a clear role to play: we must reinstate critical U.S. support for UNFPA, which is at the forefront of bringing harmful practices to “zero,” and pursue a truly feminist foreign policy, which would incorporate girls’ and women’s rights not only in the form of increased foreign aid for gender equality programming but in all spheres of influence, from trade to defense to diplomacy.
Some may see these as centuries-old traditions or customs that are intractable — but culture is constantly evolving, and change is possible. Change looks like Suci Maesaroh, Sherry Johnson, Donna Pollard, Sara Tasneem, Jasbeer Kaur and my grandmothers — both of whom were married as children, but built lives investing in their children’s health, education and self-determination and changed the course of my parents’ lives and thereby my life. I’m here today in control of my life and my body because of these generational shifts. I’m privileged in this, but I should not be special — girls and women everywhere deserve to make their own choices about their bodies, lives, and futures. Anything less is a fundamental violation of their rights.
Learn more about the Universal Access Project and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.