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The failure of democracy

Nicholas Aribino is ZimCare Trust country director

EVERY year on October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child is celebrated with the primary aim being to educate and raise awareness about the rights of the girl child. The day is marked and punctuated by a gamut of events, conferences and discussions on issues bordering on child marriages, violence against women and access to education by the girl child.

This opinion piece seeks to submit that the International Day of the Girl Child should be rethought, rejigged, retooled, remodelled and refashioned to reflect the need to promote, protect and respect the diverse needs, rights and requirements of both girls and boys, because the lived experiences of the girl children are deeply intersectional, mutually constitutive and reciprocal with those of the boy children and other primary socialisers of gender roles.

This writer is persuaded by the understanding that underscoring the challenges of the girl child as if she lives in a social, political, economic, religious or cultural vacuum is like constructing ships without making any reference to the sea. The girl child’s environment is complexly intersectional. Being of a female gender, the girl child experiences gendered activities, arrangements, media, communities, sexuality and games.

To talk about child marriages as affecting the girl child in the absence of such structural challenges affecting the girl child as poverty, religion and culture is like building a motor vehicle without any consideration of intermediate goods that would be needed in order to have the required output of the vehicle.

Girl children are getting married before they become mature due to several factors which cannot be stopped by any legal frameworks.

For example, poverty dehumanises girl children, families and communities. Laws meant to safeguard the girl child cannot be effective if they are silent on comprehensive measures on social protection that take cognisance of the fact that child poverty needs a significant vote from the fiscus to enable the girl child to have food security, shelter, health-care, sanitary wear, education, water and sanitation. Girl children living on farms, in rural, urban and mining areas are being incentivised for sexual intercourse by older men via the use of freebies.

Laws on curbing child marriages will neither be effective nor sustainable if the underlying root causes of child marriages and gender-based violence like economic, social, political, religious and cultural circumstances of girls are not addressed.

The girl child also lives in an environment where gender is binary, and the binary division of the girl child’s space is further made complex by gendered media, patriarchy, family, education system and religion. The girl child’s space is gendered left, right and centre and to that effect, child marriages cannot be addressed at the level of factors working singly, but collectively.

In order to address child marriages, the economic needs of families from which these children come from have to be attended to. Abraham Maslow, a proponent of the motivation theory, says children cannot learn anything when they are hungry, implying that for anything of significance to happen, human beings’ basic needs have to be attended to first.

For example, a poor family may not send its girl child to school if there is a neighbour who is seeking an extra hand in his or her fields for a monetary incentive. Similarly, that same indigent family may be enticed to marry off its child for a bag of maize meal so as to satisfy its basic human needs.

Human energies can be mobilised, focused, refocused and refreshed if their basic needs are satisfied. A girl child coming from a poor family approaches life with depleted physical, intellectual, spiritual, intuitive and emotional energy and is susceptible to being lured into an early marriage by men who have both political and social power in society.

Poor parents would naturally see a proposal for the marriage of their girl child as a ticket to a better life. The laws which have been considered for stopping child marriages do not come with any stimulus packages to address structural causes of early marriages only serve to drive child marriages under the ground.

The patriarchal society that the girl child finds herself in also requires safeguarding approaches to curb child marriages by addressing traditional and professional leaders in communities. Traditional and professional leaders wield social, cultural, political and economic power that can be used as a launch pad for fencing off votes from the fiscus for supporting poor families. When poor families are supported, they can potentially avoid negative shocks like having their children dropping out of school, marrying off their girl children, having their children involved in activities which may be defined as child labour so as to earn a livelihood.

The patriarchal society should be made to appreciate that healthy economies are a result of collaborative and inclusive societies where the boy and girl children, men and women work in cahoots, relate with a sense of positive reciprocity and respect one another as first and foremost human beings.

Gender equality is indeed realisable through a transformative path, and paths are made by walking. The family, education and media all combine to transform society to realise that a society can be far richer if the boy and girl children are exposed to the same opportunities. Sexism, using women as sex objects through commercial advertisements and confining the girl child to the private space for reproduction, production and community work, can only serve to eclipse women’s areas of gifting which can be equally exploited in the public space for the benefit of humanity.

Civil society organisations with a specific funded mandate on the empowerment of the girl child should experience mission drift by embracing and enhancing opportunities for boys and girls, because the challenges of girl children are multi-faceted and intersectional in outlook. The girl and boy children need to walk alongside one another throughout time and space because power lies in the collective.

Nicholas Aribino is ZimCare Trust country director. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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