Whilst attending the UN Day of General Discussion in Geneva, I was part of a panel discussion of adults and young people sharing the platform equally, which in itself signified much more than dialogue at the UN level; it was a milestone reflecting a substantial change on the way that children and young people can be positioned in public decision-making.
Along with three other young people on the panel was 15 year old Haneen, an outstanding young advocate who is defending and promoting children's rights in her hometown of Palestine. I was thrilled and honoured to meet and share a panel discussion with her.
To me, the conversation with this child advocate was an enlightening experience that reaffirmed my view and professional work, which falls within the debate on childhood as a social construction and children as competent social actors and active participants in the construction of their lives. This position explores the way we understand children, but also how gender, ethnicity, race, class and other categories are intertwined inseparably, defining how children construct and deconstruct their individualities. Haneen is not just a child; she is a girl, a Muslim, and a Palestinian across many other identities.
Despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Article 2, the principle of non-discrimination, whereby all rights must be respected without discrimination of any kind, girls continue to be treated differently based on social, cultural and legal norms that define their roles and responsibilities in society.
Making assumptions that all children can enjoy their rights and opportunities to participate equally regardless of their gender or other categories fails to recognise that girls can be disadvantaged due the social and cultural contexts in which gender identities are constructed. The denial of gender as a category that determines the chances of girls to engage in social life reinforces and endures legacies of inequality, which continue to be present in most of the countries of the world.
As I was conducting interviews with girls from Uganda, they told me that many girls are marginalised by gender and denied of rights from birth and this continues through their whole lives as daughters, sisters, students, workers, wives and mothers. They also pointed out that gender exclusion is exacerbated by other categories such as race, ethnicity and social status, which shape and restrict their lives and opportunities. This is often attributed to the power dynamics in patriarchal societies, where males are dominant in structures of subordination reinforces gender stigma and stereotyping that confine girls to their homes and degrade their roles in society resulting in an unequal realisation of their rights. By assuming that all children construct their identities and rights equally and their gender does not play a role with the equal opportunity to thrive, increases unbalanced power relations and has a considerable impact on discrimination and disadvantage concerning the deprivation of their rights.
While conducting research in Bangladesh, girls told me that they are often expected to behave according to their gender, that they are socially penalised if they do not follow those traditional or expected patterns and they feel they are less favoured than the boys. In Brazil, girls told me that they are conditioned from birth to be pretty and sweet, but other characteristics like being smart and strong are discouraged. In conversations with girls in Uganda, they told me that the value of a girl is the equivalent of a cow if they are lucky; many others are exchanged or traded for marriage for less than that. In America, I interviewed a group of girls that told me they feel undermined and patronised by their male peers and teachers at school and they are expecting to be sexually harassed if wearing tight clothes or makeup.
I personally have a strong commitment to looking at the identities and lived experiences of girls and boys and how I can contribute to closing the gender gap in realising children's rights. This is probably influenced by my own personal experience and standpoints as I am continually constructing and reconstructing how our identities define our lives as children and adults. When I am in the field, I am captivated by the way the relationships between the boys and girls are framed by their particular gender roles and I often relate sympathetically to the girls’ struggle to be recognised as equals in their communities. Once I asked a group of girls in Jordan about their feelings of vulnerability or exclusion in relation to the difference between boys and girls. They said that they do not feel vulnerable at all and do not want to be labelled as such, but agreed that there was an ongoing fight for recognition of their abilities to participate, but this does not undermine their abilities and sense of confidence. They said they found their way to navigate this and to achieve everything they want.
This dialogue was crucial to me in building new understandings by confronting my beliefs and co-constructing shared meaning of what means to be a girl in any given society. Whilst participating in the panel discussion in Geneva, I asked Haneen the same question, and she responded that she feels empowered, confident and valued and, moreover, she does not see differences between boys and girls. One can disagree with her account, but her stand should help us to balance our perspectives to look at different angles and not just focus on the deprived position of the girls as a vulnerable group. Girls are not just defenceless individuals in need of safeguarding; while protection is one of their fundamental rights, their competency as actors with agency able to negotiate power, to interact with others and to define and redefine their own lives should be acknowledged.
My call today is to refocus our perspectives beyond a vulnerability lens and to embrace girls’ strengths and empowerment in constructing their lives. This lens can help to promote and improve the opportunities of girls to participate equally in society and contribute to removing the traditional social norms that define their position in society in relation to imposed social identities. It is important to note that, although girls experience different challenges across diverse social contexts, the full realisation of their rights, the desire for inclusion and standing up for equality are almost identical demands from girls regardless of their age, heritage, nationality or origin. Our collective commitment should be to make those demands heard and their hopes a reality.
About the author
Patricio Cuevas-Parra is the Senior Global Policy Adviser for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International where he leads strategies and programmes to ensure that children and young people's participation are at the centre of the advocacy and policy debate. He has a keen interest in looking at cutting-edge child rights advocacy tools and models to enhance children and young people engagement in public decision-making.
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