In many cultures, being born female can consign the girl child to the peripheries of society where her safety is denied and her human rights are routinely violated. At each and every stage of development, girls are more likely than boys to confront a host of disadvantages associated with discrimination and violence, although the social norms and cultural rules that influence girls are most intensely felt as she struggles to develop into adulthood. At the onset of puberty, or even before, some girls are pulled out of school and forced into early marriage and high-risk pregnancy. Others become victims of harmful practices, including female genital mutilation and dowry-related violence, or are murdered in the name of honor. Countless numbers are forced into exploitative labor as a means of survival, or trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, while discriminatory inheritance laws and practices condemn many to poverty. Addressing discrimination and violence faced by girls across the globe, and ensuring their access to the same basic opportunities as boys, is crucial to their development and to the realization of their human rights. This paper provides an overview of the international harmful traditional or cultural practices and gender-based social and cultural norms that perpetuate the lower status accorded to girls in the family, the community and society. Recommendations for social policy are presented.
Key Words: Discrimination, Violence, Girls, Human Rights
Introduction and Overview of the Problem
The United Nations (UN) Beijing Platform for Action, including Section L, pledges to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls, specifically addressing economic exploitation, education, violence, and harmful traditional or cultural practices and attitudes (UN, 1995a; UNICEF, 2010a). It highlights the need to eliminate the detrimental gender stereotypes that prevail in many societies and to create empowering surroundings in which girls can attain their full capacity. It identifies poverty eradication as the greatest global challenge facing the world, and stresses that the growing feminization of poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (UNICEF, 2010b), and other internationally agreed development goals, requires investing sufficient resources for gender equality and empowerment. It promises to support families and to stimulate girls' mindfulness and involvement in their own lives and in their communities, and acknowledges that the advancement of women is not sustainable without attention to the rights of girls.
Several international human rights agreements also exist to protect the human rights of the girl child. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), for example, is an important treaty for girls as well as for boys because it establishes the economic, political, civil, social and cultural rights of children (UN, 1989). Approved by every country in the world except the United States of America, and guided by four main principles, it is the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. The first principle, non-discrimination, is outlined in Article 2 and prohibits sex discrimination; it also implies that girls and boys should enjoy all of the rights provided for in the CRC on an equal basis and in their totality. It further requires that all children are entitled to the rights set out in the CRC, regardless of their religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, race, color, ethnicity, age, language, sex, and disability, property, birth or other status. The principle of best interests of the child (Article 3) supports a child-centered approach and requires those in positions of authority to review programs, policies, regulations and legislation so that they have a positive influence on promoting or fulfilling children's rights. The principle of the right to life, survival and development (Article 6) indicates that children should be protected from situations, including conflict, which would place their lives in jeopardy and that countries must ensure that children do not die from malnutrition, disease or other causes. …