LONDON—Let’s talk about girls. Or actually, let’s talk about one girl, my almost nine-month-old daughter, Nora. I have never been all that interested in infant and childhood development, until I had my own kids (Nora has a fraternal twin brother, Theo). But I find my twins fascinating in how different they are in terms of their development, personality and curiosity.
My daughter has been the first at many things—she crawled first, she got her teeth first and she’s starting to go into the standing position first. And she’s confident, feisty, intelligent and very curious. My son has these qualities too but she seems to have them in spades, and it makes me happy that she’s vocal when she wants something and won’t let anything (dogs, chairs, toys) get in her way. She also is a great manipulator, which troubles me in some senses, because it seems to be an innate quality and something that many of my friends who have daughters have told me they have noticed in their girls as well.
As I watch her crawl across the room, grabbing a toy from her brother and then turning around to smile at me with absolute pride and confidence, it also makes me preemptively sad for her. For now, she is an equal to her brother. Yes, I do dress her in pink, which I initially swore I never would (let’s not even talk about how much gendered baby clothing there is out there) but I don’t want to have a girly girl. I want to raise a strong, smart, empathetic, curious woman who does not apologize for herself and is happy in her body and who she is.
But over time, I know that her confidence may likely be chipped away at by big and little things, as happened to me and billions of women across the globe. From big things like body shaming and sexual harassment to seemingly meaningless comments from men (and some women) implying that men are the leaders, the breadwinners, the strong ones while women are window dressing and the “weaker sex.” We are the ones who have to set the table while men are the ones who get to sit at it.
Her brother won’t face those issues. Yes, he will face other problems and dilemmas in his life but because he is a boy, he simply won’t get treated the way she will. These two little people will eventually grow up in two different realities. I will fight it the best I can but I can’t control all of society—from educators and future bosses who consciously or not judge her and make assumptions about her because she is a female to future friends’ comments and strangers’ looks, actions and catcalls.
When does this start for little girls? Is it when they start nursery school? Or even before when, dressed in a pink dress and tights, people say things like, “Oh she is so cute and sweet” while a boy hears things like, “Aren’t you tough and sporty?” Cute and sweet sounds slightly condescending and focuses around looks while tough and sporty is something a boy can actually control and do and be empowered.
October 11 is International Day of the Girl, where for one day we highlight the strength and achievements of young women and girls across the globe. One day, that’s all they get. That we even have to have a day like this already shows how girls start out on the back foot on this planet, a “minority” (though we aren’t actually) that needs to be held up and encouraged. There is no day of the boy, because, as some naysayers might comment, every day is boy (and man) day.
I recently was asked to write an essay for a girls’ online magazine on a topic of my choice related to activism, maternal health, sex trafficking or development. I told the editor I wanted to write about girls’ education and the barriers that girls face when it comes to, specifically, secondary education because for me, education is the key to solving almost every problem. I have spent a lot of time travelling across the globe, particularly in places like Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya meeting and speaking with girls about their schooling.
One of the barriers that compels me the most is how girls actually get to school—many girls, after doing morning chores like cleaning and fetching water, then have to walk miles to get to school, often on empty stomachs, often through dangerous urban and rural landscapes. They are harassed and taunted. They have to be careful to not be eaten by lions. They take shortcuts through toxic waste dumps. They get lifts on motorcycles, no helmets, and sometimes made to pay in sexual favors. Or they can’t even walk to school because they have their periods and don’t have any adequate sanitary products they can wear during their long trip. Just getting to the classroom is a journey of obstacles and oppression for many girls across on our planet.
Luckily, my daughter won’t face that particular hurdle that millions of her gender do face on a daily basis. So she already has a leg up in that regard. But she will find as she grows up that in our global sisterhood, we unfortunately can relate on many levels to each other—that a schoolgirl who is made to feel inferior as she walks to school in Jakarta will understand what a girl goes through on her way home from ballet lessons in Johannesburg. That the young teen in Mexico City who who cries into her pillow because her dad’s best friend made fun of her “bee sting” breasts will have empathy for the girl in Madrid who can’t tell her mother that her uncle touches her in her private places, even when she tells him no.
This is my first International Day of the Girl as a mother of a girl. It has more resonance in a way but it also feels more hollow, especially after all the controversy in the United States of the Supreme Court hearings, nomination and swearing in of a man accused of sexually abusing a girl when they were both teenagers. How do I protect my girl from that? How do I make sure she stays confident and becomes an advocate not only for herself but other girls and women? How do I reinforce to her that she can be whatever she wants to be, even if there are few role models in her chosen field who are women? Part of that, I suspect, is also reinforcing these things in her brother, because men and boys need to play a lead role in female empowerment as well. Her twin, her future advocate, her equal.
Image courtesy of Karen Hallion Art