“If you talk to me about my mother, you will get my respect.
If you talk to me about my wife, I will tell you it’s none of your business.
But if you talk to me about my daughter, you have my eyes, ears and heart…”
Old Egyptian Saying 1
Think about a girl in your life who is special to you. Maybe you have a daughter, or a niece, or a little sister. Perhaps there is a girl in your neighborhood or at church, or one in your ministry who comes to mind. Close your eyes and envision her face, her smile, the sound of her laughter, the warmth of her greeting each time you see her. Think about the joy she brings to your life and her gifts and talents.
What do you want most for her? What are your hopes and dreams for her life? What are her hopes and dreams? What does God desire for this girl?
Do any of the following common “proverbs” and sayings 2 from around the world reflect what you were imagining for that special girl in your life?
- “Girls are maggots in the rice.”—an old Chinese saying
- “Daughters and dead fish are no keeping wares.”—an 18th century English saying
- A girl is “merely a weed.”—a Zulu saying
- “Happy is he whose children are sons and woe to him whose children are daughters.”—from the Talmudic writings
- Announcement of the birth of a female child: “Nothing was born.” —Among Hindus
While it may seem unbelievable in the 21st century, according to a variety of sources from secular and Christian development agencies, female children and youth around the world are often the most neglected, exploited, abused, and discriminated-against human beings on earth. 3 Unfortunately, most of us are unaware of the problem because “girls are not usually visible on statistical profiles. Their predicament is blended with those of women or boys,” says former Development Education Manager for World Vision Canada, David Kupp. 4
While it is not usually recognized, child and teenage girls are often devalued simply because of their gender, their age, and their economic status.
Strike One: Being Female
First, girls are marginalized simply for being female. However, “unlike apartheid and racism, gender prejudice is not acknowledged as a formally articulated behavioral precept or doctrine. But it clearly exists and has an impact on the female life-cycle.” 5
Strike Two: Being Under-Age
Second, simply being under age 18 is a disadvantage because “until quite recently, all societies placed the well-being of adults above that of children” according to Robert Edgerton, a professor of anthropology and psychology at UCLA. 6
Strike Three: Being Poor
Finally, in many cultures children and youth are among the poorest of the poor. The economic status of girls often makes them even more vulnerable. Due to cultural beliefs, young females may be viewed as an economic burden. Rather than bringing more income into the home, income will be needed to pay for her to be married. In many cultures, once she is married she will leave the family and no longer contribute to their economic well-being. 7
Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the rights of girls and young women, in many places these rights are often denied. Some ways in which their rights are violated around the world are discrimination against girls from the time they are conceived (selective abortion); a higher value placed on boys leading to a denial to girls of equal rights to education, food, dignity, and protection; exposure to harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation; and girls being judged by physical appearance or objectified in media, rather than by what they contribute to society.
Researching a Response
In light of these realities, how might the church respond? More research needs to be done on the issues girls face around the world and how the gospel can become truly good news that brings transformation in lives, families, communities and cultures. We need to be willing to look closely at the situation of the “girl-child” (a global designation meaning all girls under 18 years of age) in our own culture and around the world and ask some tough questions:
- Are girls being given access to appropriate healthcare and nutrition?
- Are they able to attend school within an environment and structure whereby they may flourish and graduate?
- Are they being given the opportunity to learn skills that will help them break the cycle of poverty in their families?
- How might we challenge the ways girls are being exploited in the home and labor force?
- In what ways are media and society objectifying or sexualizing girls, and how might the church seek to change this?
- Are we speaking out against gender-based violence in their homes and communities?
- Is the gospel being presented as good news that brings freedom to grow and develop into all that God created them to be?
FYI is participating in research on some of these questions, and we are currently in the middle of a three year project focused on the girl-child. In the first phase, twenty-eight qualitative interviews were done with girls and leaders in Christian programs focused specifically on girls in the greater Los Angeles area. This was just a meager start at beginning to understand some of the issues young women face growing up in the U.S. and how the church is walking with them in their journey.
The girls who were interviewed ranged in age from eleven to twenty-one; included African-American, Latina, Caucasian, and Asian girls; and represented varying socio-economic and educational backgrounds. As a case study approach, the goal of the research is to find emerging themes and issues for the girls and the ministries, and the interviews with both the girls (16 in all) and their leaders (12 in all) affirmed general trends found in the current literature on the girl-child.
Insights from Girls Themselves
Some of the issues raised by the young women interviewed included:
- feeling like there is a double standard for guys and girls;
- being limited in certain activities, such as sports or jobs because of being a girl;
- higher educational expectations for girls;
- girls gossiping about and mistreating or bullying other girls;
- self-esteem issues;
- physical challenges, such as PMS and pregnancy; and
- guys treating them like they aren’t capable of doing things or being independent, or are somehow “less than” boys.
The girls also discussed not liking the stereotypes that girls are too emotional and often seen as “drama queens” and as weaker than guys. Interestingly, when asked what they liked about being a girl, some mentioned being glad they could talk about their feelings with friends because guys think they have to be so “macho.” So, while on the one hand some girls don’t like being perceived as too emotional, others embrace the ability to connect with their emotions and talk about them.
One girl said she loves surprising people and proving them wrong when they think she is weak. Another girl said she likes “that we are strong and we’re fighters.” Several also mentioned liking being able to do “girl stuff,” such as wear make-up, style their hair, go shopping, and dress up in nice clothes and jewelry.
Insights from Ministries Serving Girls
The ministries working with these girls varied in their approaches, although there were also many similarities among them. A main focus seemed to be on nurturing a sense of identity and belonging among the girls. Many emphasized the importance of sharing the love of Christ with the girls and helping them to see that their value and worth comes from being made in the image of God. They also accentuated the potential of the girls, seeking to show them new opportunities for their lives and to give them a place to serve in the church and community right now.
Almost all of the leaders interviewed described the importance of older women, or even older girls, mentoring and discipling younger women. One leader said she takes very seriously the biblical mandate of guiding younger women. She described it metaphorically by saying that if there is a ditch around the corner, and she knows that a girl is following behind her, she has to warn her about it.
This mentorship impacts both the girls and the women who are mentoring them, thus producing fruit in the lives of everyone involved. Research has shown that girls are more likely than boys to pass on what they learn to others. As one ministry leader said, “When you teach a girl, you teach a community.” Girls will pass on what they have learned to other girls, their own children, and their children’s children.
Youth Ministry Implications
First, in our daily lives and ministries, we must listen to the girls themselves and try to understand their realities. How will we know what a girl’s life is like if we don’t ask her? How will we know how to help girls grow and develop and overcome obstacles they might face if we don’t know what those issues are?
Second, talk to the girls in your own life and intentionally listen to their stories. Read books by and about girls. Give them opportunities to come together to share their stories, ideas, dreams, and goals. With these girls, analyze their experiences to discover how we can work together so that all girls might be welcomed to participate fully in the family of God and be free to use their unique God-given gifts and abilities in building the kingdom.
Finally, we must act in practical ways to make a difference. Analyze how we are unintentionally teaching children and youth gender stereotypes in our churches. Become educated about the issues. [[
The following reports and websites are a good place to start: American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. 2010. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls [Online report]. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf (Accessed March 13, 2011); Blagbourgh, Jonathon, and Nikki Van Der Graag. 2009. Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2009/Girls in the Global Economy: Adding It All Up. [Online report]. Plan UK, Plan International. http://plan-international.org/girls/. (Accessed February 28, 2011); girleffect.org. 2010. Girl Effect: Your Move. [online report]. http://www.girleffect.org/. (Accessed February 28, 2011); Van der Gaag, Nikki 2007. Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2007. [Online report]. Plan UK, Plan International. http://plan-international.org/about-plan/resources/publications/campaigns/because-i-am-a-girl-the-state-of-the-worlds-girls-2007. (Accessed February 28, 2011); Hoffman Hanchett, Ruthi 2007. Hope for the Girl Child: A Briefing Paper to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women at its 51st session, February 2007 [Online Report]. World Vision International. http://www.globalempowerment.org/PolicyAdvocacy/pahome2.5.nsf/cractionnews/9FD09609F11377E688257289000DB41A/$file/CSW2007_WEB.pdf (Accessed February 28, 2011); Van der Gaag, Nikki 2008. Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2008/ Special focus: In the Shadow of War. [Online Report]. Plan UK, Plan International. http://plancanada.ca/downloads/biaag/BecauseIamaGirl2008Report.pdf. (Accessed February 28, 2011);
Van der Gaag, Nikki 2010. Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2010: Digital and Urban Frontiers:Girls in a Changing Landscape. [Online report]. Plan UK, Plan International. http://www.plan-uk.org/pdfs/Because_I_Am_a_Girl-2010.pdf. (Accessed February 28, 2011);
World Vision Australia. 2009. Refocusing Rhetoric Into Action Investing in Women: Why It Matters. [Online Report]. World Vision Australia. http://www.worldvision.com.au/Libraries/3_3_1_Gender_and_Development/Refocusing_rhetoric_into_action_Investing_in_women_Why_it_matters.sflb.ashx. (Accessed February 28, 2011).]]
Speak out, with love and sensitivity, against cultural practices that may be harmful to the girl-child. Become advocates for exploited girls so that governments will take notice of the problems.
Research and perhaps join campaigns such as “Girls Count”, “Because I am a Girl”, and “The Girl Effect”. Carefully, thoughtfully and theologically analyze the root causes of violence and seek ways to change them. Consider gender and age in our Sunday School and youth group curricula and activities and in our outreach ministries. Keep listening to girls and expanding this list of actions.
We can’t change “proverbs” or cultures overnight; a complex web of factors work together to create these situations for the girl child. Yet, these girls are God’s creation, made in God’s image. It is time for the church to become aware of the obstacles many girls face and begin to talk about (and with) our “daughters.” Then, as followers of Jesus, we may speak blessings into their lives instead of curses, proclaiming, “You are the daughter of the King!”
- Ann Smith, Sister Heléna Marie, Nancy Grandfield, and Lucy Germany, WomenPrints: A Detailed Plan of Action for the New Millennium (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1997), .224-225. ↩
- Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, The Burden of Girlhood: A Global Inquiry into the Status of Girls. (Oakland, CA: Third Party Publishing Co., 1995), 20-21. ↩
- Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, The Burden of Girlhood: A Global Inquiry into the Status of Girls (Oakland, CA: Third Party Publishing Co., 1995), 20-21; World Vision, The Girl Child: Enhancing Life Sustaining Hope 1998 Washington Forum (Federal Way, WA: The Institute for Global Engagement, World Vision, Inc., 1998); World Vision Canada, Girls! Stories Worth Telling: Report and Conference Manual (Toronto, Canada: World Vision Canada, 1998). ↩
- David Kupp, “Growing up a Girl: A Tough Life,” Voices 1(1994):2. ↩
- Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, The Burden of Girlhood: A Global Inquiry into the Status of Girls. (Oakland, CA: Third Party Publishing Co., 1995), 7. ↩
- Robert B. Edgerton, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (New York: Free Press, 1992), 75. ↩
- Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, The Burden of Girlhood: A Global Inquiry into the Status of Girls. (Oakland, CA: Third Party Publishing Co., 1995). ↩