The Girl Child and Malala Yousafzai’s Crusade

October 11, 2012 was the first International Day of the Girl Child.

This day was marked to focus attention on the challenges the girl child faces, the need for her social and economic development and the need to empower her through education and equal rights with men.

The Executive Directors of UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and UN Women issued a joint statement that outlined the goal for this year. “This year we have come together to focus on child marriage.”  To achieve this, the directors made a plea to all governments to do the following:

We call on governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, faith-based groups and the international community to accelerate efforts to:

  • Enforce legislation to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18;
  • Improve equal access to quality primary and secondary education;
  • Mobilize girls, boys, parents and leaders to change discriminatory gender norms and create alternative social, economic and civic opportunities for girls;
  • Support girls who are already married by providing them with options for schooling, sexual and reproductive health information and services, including HIV prevention, livelihoods skills and recourse from violence in the home;
  • Address the root causes of child marriage, including violence against girls and women.

It is regrettable that women in underdeveloped countries face these challenges alone and are suppressed mercilessly with threats/acts of extreme physical violence. Malala Yousafzai 14, and a tireless advocate of girls’ education since she was 11, was shot in her head and neck by Taliban gunmen as she was going back home from school on October 9. She was targeted because she spoke her mind about the ban on girl’s education in the once Taliban-occupied Pakistan and for criticizing the militant group. The Taliban considers Malala’s crusade for educational rights for girls an obscenity and a propagation of undesirable western values.  Laura Bush, our former First Lady, expressed the urgency for the creation of an environment in which girls can grow and blossom.

For a brief history of Malala’s struggles in the Swat Valley, Pakistan, watch this video.  I warn, however, that there is some graphic content in it:

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf assured his support to Malala’s family and said:

“Today we have gathered here to pay tribute to the bravery and courage of Malala Yousafzai. The nation stands united in condemning the brutality and degradation of those who perpetrated this crime and the poisoned mindset that seeks to destroy the soul of our nation. The attack on Malala is not a crime against the individual. It is a crime against humanity. An attack on our moral and social values.”

The youth today, the world over, is articulate, assertive and fearless.  We have seen revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria which were initiated by the new, thinking generation. We need to have faith in their ability to change the world for the better. However, it has always been difficult for women to organize themselves into a cohesive group due to their isolation, family and religious backgrounds, sheltered upbringing, and social stratification. In short, girls/women come with certain pre-existing conditions that deny them insurance for a happy, healthy life. It is extremely rare that girls like Malala come out and speak up for the cause of all women.  Malala Zindabad.

Bolsa Família — A Success Story in Brazil

Launched in 2003, as part of the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program by the  Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsa Família (Family Stipend) is seen as the world’s leading wealth redistribution system.  It is a conditional cash transfer program that has benefited about 46 million poor people in Brazil, almost a quarter of its population.

The program provided income supplements to poor families subject to certain conditions such as 85% school attendance for children ages 6-15 and mandatory participation in socio-educational activities after school, 75% attendance for teenagers ages 16-17, vaccinations for children, nutritional monitoring and health education for women.

plastic id card for members

Besides reducing the income inequality, the program provides tremendous support to women.  93% of the program’s beneficiaries are women and 27% of those are single mothers.  It strengthens their position in their households and communities, gives them more respect and increased influence within their family and has reduced domestic violence.  It has also initiated policies for development of labor skills.  The Ministry of Labor and Social Development works together with the local governments to link employment and social protection policies to ensure poverty reduction.  Bolsa Família gives poor families their first experience with banks, debit cards and credit cards thereby offering them “financial inclusion“.  These people have access to small business initiatives and financing.

Bolsa Família gives children freedom from bonded labor and works in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.  It targets households with monthly per capita income lower than US $52.  The program offers US $13 per child/pregnant woman and US $19 per teenager (16-17 yrs. old).  Extremely poor families receive upto US $79 dollars a month.  The government does not put conditions on how the money is to be spent.

Enrollment is conducted at the municipal level and families are registered into a unified central database called the Cadastro Único.

Of course, the program has its glitches.  This blogger quotes a UNDP report,

Bolsa Família uses unverified means-testing conducted at the municipal level to select its beneficiaries. Given the programme’s large size, it would be very costly to use verified means-testing or proxy means-testing to identify eligible households. The programme’s unverified selection method has been criticized on the grounds that its highly decentralized process could lead to selection distortions, such as patronage and leakage.

And so, sometimes absurd things happen.  According to the blog SEMANCOL:  NOTÍCIAS ABSURDAS e PENSAMENTOS (Absurd news and thoughts)

Mother of exBBB Grazi gets Family Allowance

The seamstress Cleusa Massafera Smith is a 3204 recipient of the Bolsa Familia in Jacarezinho, in northern Paraná. The federal program of income transfer is aimed at families in poverty and extreme poverty. The problem is that Cleusa is the mother of actress and model Grazielli Massafera, known to participate in the program Big Brother Brazil.

(translated from Portugese by Google)

The main criticism about Bolsa Família is that while it ensures children go to school it has not improved the quality of education and it will not provide higher education.  One comment on BrazzilMag reads:

First, this money doesn’t change miserable people into real citizens! If they were just poor, now they are the ones who receive “alms” from the government.
Second, the main criterion to receiving the money is something ridiculous: you just have to send your children to school. if they have attendance, it’s ok. They don’t need to really learn, just pass. what is not difficult, since teachers can’t fail them.
What seems to be good is actually malefic, because when these students are aged to get to University, they won’t. First, because there won’t be Bolsa Familia when they are to enter High School, second because they won’t have learned the basics of the subjects.

Another criticism is that the program has a rural bias; the urban areas demand a higher cost of living and the stipend is just not adequate to alleviate poverty.
No one, however, can dispute that poverty has fallen from 22% of the population to 7% of the population which is a remarkable feat. It costs only about 0.5% of Brazilian GDP and about 2.5% of total government expenditure.

Most people use that extra income to buy their children clothes and shoes. That is how it should be.

A similar program called Opportunity NYC was a privately funded $63 million initiative, the first of its kind in the United States.  The pilot program, however, closed on August 2010. I believe that these ventures must have the backing of the government and must involve several social, educational and economic reforms which are outside the reach of private enterprise.