The Life of a Girl Child in Africa

In Africa, cultural  and societal norms  determine what the girl or boy should or should not do at the various stages of their lives; which norms affect their way of living, schooling and behavior  and in most cases it is the girl who is affected right from her early ages, expected to engage in household chores like caring for the sick, collecting water, tilling the land which activities affect her ability to attend school and also be a “child”  because of the fact, that the society expects her to be a responsible “woman”, while on the other hand, the boy has the freedom to go to school, play and be a normal child,  as in accordance with the cultural beliefs, where a boy is not expected to be involved in any house chores, but to be socialized and be the head of the family.

The African girl children often find themselves at crossroads between cultural norms that work against them and the demand to survive in the patriarchal war torn communities, which forces the girls to enter a “formal work place” which also includes prostitution at a very early age, as a result of poverty and due to the attitude of the parents towards the girl child. This greatly force girls to face severe challenges and difficulties in the society, which begins at a very young age.

In addition, poverty in Africa represents a generational discrimination passed on from mother to daughter; and this long term impact of economic devastation is felt by a generation of children who have had little, or no education, which has greatly created an implication on the life of the girl children, as females these girl children are culturally socialized to be submissive from childhood. These inequalities between the boy and girl children, constantly follow the girls even when they reach adolescence which include denial of education opportunities denying their right to education, forced genital mutilation, forced early child marriage, sexual violence, forced abortion and as a result high death rates, domestic violence, etc., which makes the girl children extreme vulnerable in deciding for themselves, and in choosing a dignified life of their own.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which came into place 67 years ago – when in the times where men ruled the world, emphasizes on the ‘right to education’ in its Article 26. The ‘Education for All’ movement began as a global commitment to promote the education for all boys and girls children, youths and adults around the world [World Education Forum, Dakar 2000]. The African Charter on the Rights of Welfare of the Child which has been ratified by 53 African countries [] in its Article 2 defines the word ‘child’. But in Africa this definition is a reality only in the lives of male children and not females. The girl child – even before entering the age of 18 is taken through numerous sufferings, and burdened with various responsibilities. While Article 3 of the Charter talks about ‘non-discrimination, Article 11 underlines the right to ‘education’. Thus, while this Charter emphasizes on the rights and welfare of the child – the societal practice continues to discriminate, harass and undermine the girl children of this continent.

The breakdown of traditional customs that protected children and adolescents has given rise to these gender inequalities among the children and raising the number of child abuse. The increase in alcohol consumption among men and boys has further increased sexual violence and abuse, where the girl children mostly become victims, creating a scar in their lives and affecting their social life.

According to Barbara Houston (2004), there exists in a community of people, pervasive social injustices, which need attention before they become entrenched and likely to worsen the harmony of the community, and it observes that a number of factors are responsible for this social injustice – namely, the lack of shared understanding, control over the child, repression, and abuse of subjugated groups; and the girl child in a typical African society  falls into the subjugated group, as she is repressed by male dominance, controlled by traditional perceptions of a woman, and abused by the time-honored customs of her community, because the prejudice against the girl child in this society is not about race or ethnicity, but rather gender and sexuality.

Hence the big question still remains unanswered in relation to why the African girl child is still left out of many development efforts, why culture still promotes gender inequalities even when we are already in the 21st century. These could only be attributed to how our society is patriarchal and institutionalized, because even despite the efforts by the government and the Non-Government Organizations, the African girl children are still discriminated based on their gender and sexuality, and this gender boundary is reinforced by our cultural boundaries which need to be addressed, as the girl child too belongs to the nation, and once  girls are protected and trained to access and enjoy equal and equitable rights with the boy child, then a Nation is built on the basis of equality and equity for both the girls and boys children who would be the leaders of tomorrow’s Africa.

According to the Unite Nations Millennium Report (2000), more than 110 million children are not in school and approximately 60 per cent are girls. By the age of 18, girls have received an average of 4.4 years of less education than the boys of same age; more than 130 million primary school age children are not enrolled in school worldwide, and nearly 60% from this are girls; in some of the sub-Saharan African countries adolescent girls have HIV rates up to five times higher, than the adolescent boys; pregnancies and childbirth-related health problems take the lives of nearly 146,000 teenage girls each year.” This report of the United Nations (UN) reflects the plight of the girl child in many developing countries including Africa. But, the reality is that, virtually in every area of life and in every African  country, at home or in the classroom it is the girls and women  who routinely bear burdens and endure treatment that reflect their unequal status in terms of gender and sexuality.

Thus, the need is high for African countries and communities to have, and enact legislation to protect the girl child and further enforce the implementation of the protection of girl children, moving towards equality, equity and non-discrimination.

The African girl child is also part of the society; and therefore, investing and protecting the rights of this group is very important for the welfare of the community. It is important that these girls are protected and treated fairly in order for them to gain self-respect and self-confidence, and thereby have confidence knowing that the community and the nation are safe places that support them to live a dignified life, where their voices would be heard and where their access would not be denied to education, health, information, participation, and in development programmes that contribute in achieving equality and equity, and towards a sustainable society, and nation.

Harriet Adong | Uganda