I am preparing for the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women which I will attend from March 3-8 in New York City. This year’s priority theme is elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.
Canada’s Dr. Shelley Ross, BCMA President and MWIA Secretary-General, is a member of the Canadian delegation and so MWIA will make a presentation at the United Nations about the role medical women can play in eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls. My contribution to this will be to consider how violence against girls can be addressed.
The first question this raises for me is: Who is a girl? The definition is straightforward theoretically – from the Oxford dictionary: a female child or youth. In practice, however, the answer to the question becomes more complex.
One important aspect of violence against girls is that they are forced to be women or sexualized at too young an age. While we can say that this is less likely in our culture(After all, we don’t have a problem with child brides, do we?), exposure to adult themes and sexuality from a young age in western culture inculcates even the youngest girls into the mindset that they are only valued for their beauty. Thinness is part of that cult and, over the years, we have seen younger and younger girls restricting their diets in pursuit of beauty. (Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman’s Tragic Quest for Thinness by Mary Pipher) Our mixed messages around sexualization, beauty and thinness cause girls everywhere to grow up too quickly.
It does seem to me that we have forgotten that our task is to prepare a girl for the world so that she can approach it on her own terms and that a great part of that task is exposure to the realities of the world in such a way that she can incorporate her own response, which will change as her mind grows and develops. The growth and development of a mind include education and we are all aware that many girls around the world are denied an education. We must remind these countries of our responsibility to educate girls. In our own country, we are more successful with this, since many girls are now doing better than their brothers in school. They are still not doing nearly as well as their brothers in their careers or in gaining power since men still achieve tops job ranks and elected office much more readily.
Education for power and in careers is not learning acquired in a book and our culture continues to struggle with the concept of a woman as powerful, notwithstanding 5 women premiers. While so many women premiers is a good benchmark, the numbers of women on boards and in CEO positions continues to lag behind what one might expect. We must find a way to supplement education with an education about power and gender so that girls can more easily take their roles running our corporations and governments and boys can more easily accept their roles as fathers and members of families. (If you think men are taking on more roles in households, have a look at any research about how much housework men do, compared to women.)
Jean Baker Miller described in her work on girls’ development the fact that young women often lose their self-confidence at a point when their need for relationships surpasses their need for autonomy. Miller describes a point at which a girl will shift her thinking in order to be more aligned with those with whom she has relationships. This point, to me, marks the ends of girlhood and, like all passages, it comes at different ages for different girls. When it comes too early, we see the consequences that can promote situations in which others are more important than the girl and she loses herself in her quest to maintain her relationships. She also often abandons that most valuable of relationships, the relationship with her mother. This may happen more easily in poorer or single parent, female-led households where her mother is busy with all the tasks of parenting.
I only have 10 minutes in the Commission of the Status of Women Panel about what medical women can do to prevent violence against women and I know what my message will be, after I’ve talked about the basic public health information of violence against girls: Promote a girl’s relationship with her mother whenever you can. You’re always a girl to your mother and the longer you can be a girl, the better.