Disempowered Girls

In many parts of the world, girls are second-class citizens. They may be encouraged or forced to marry young and have many children. Their bodies may be painfully and permanently modified in rituals to discourage sexual behavior. In some countries, they can’t vote, drive, own property, or even open a banking account. They may be denied schooling. (Of the 130 million kids that don’t get to go to school in the world, 90 million are girls.*)

SEXISM: NOT JUST A “THIRD WORLD” PROBLEM

Women in the so-called developed or First World are not immune to the world’s preference for boys over girls: women earn only ¾ of what men do for the same jobs, and they, too, are vulnerable to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and abuse — simply because they were born female.

The result? Girls and women are the majority of the worlds’ poorest people: 70 percent of the worlds’ 1. 3 billion are living in extreme poverty. Not surprisingly, since schooling is often denied to them, 2/3 of the world’s illiterate are also girls and women. Psychologically, they’re prey to crippling self-esteem issues, and an alarming number of girls in the developed world develop eating disorders as a response to the misogynistic world they live in.

THE ECONOMIC, RELIGIOUS, AND CULTURAL ROOTS OF GENDER DISCRIMINATION

Why is there a preference of boys over girls all over the world? The answer is complex and culturally specific. It can involve an interplay of simple economics, religious beliefs, and ultimately a self-fulfulling prophecy whereby the discrimination of girls leads to their lower status in society, which then becomes seen as proof of their inferiority rather than the inevitable result of their treatment. The irony? This lower status seen as natural inferiority comes to be seen as  justification for more mistreatment and discrimination.

In terms of economics, some cultures justify their preference for girls over boys because for them, having a girl means that a family has to pay a dowry, whereas they’d receive the dowry if their son married. Sons are often seen as being able to leave the home, work, and bring back income to their families, whereas girls — particularly when they reach adolescence and can get pregnant — may cost their family dearly.

Religion can also play a part in the reasoning that boys are superior to girls. Some religions codify in their scripture beliefs that girls are unclean and morally inferior to boys, and as a result they have fewer opportunities outside the prescribed roles of caretaker and homemaker.

Although the cultural preference for boys over girls is often seen as a “Third World” problem, a recent Gallup poll indicated that 40 percent of Americans polled said they would prefer a boy and 28 percent would prefer a girl. The rest of the respondents said that they had no preference or opinion. More men than women answered that they would prefer to have boys, while women said they didn’t care either way.

Comments in a New York Times article to why this preference could still remain in the 21st century in the United States didn’t sound too different from the justifications in Third World countries: boys are easier to raise; cheaper to raise; cause less trouble; and because they’ll have more opportunity in the world (due to sexism!), their lives will be easier for their parents. And they can carry the family name (a tradition that itself is rooted in gender discrimination).

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