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October 11th 2012 – the first international day of the girl – all over the world Plan International who had campaigned for the day, launched their Because I am a Girl campaign for girls’ rights. Public buildings were bathed in pink, celebrities pledged support and Plan also launched the 6th State of the World’s Girls report, Learning for Life. It focuses on the importance of a quality education for girls, not just enrolment at primary school, but 9 years in school able to learn something useful.  And give them the skills the knowledge and the confidence that will enable young women to be active citizens, with decent jobs, forming equal relationships with partners and family.

Meanwhile one of my colleagues, Nikki van der Gaag, who will be writing the 7th Girls’ Report, came back from Pakistan, a long way from the pink London Eye or Empire State building,  with a story that illustrates why campaigning for girls’ rights is so important. And why adolescence, a time when for many of us life opened up, is so crucially important –  12 year old girls in many parts of the world find themselves enclosed in a domestic world going from child to “woman” virtually overnight.

Sharon Goulds.  Girls Report Project Lead.  October 2012.

The invisible girls

As we drive along the road early in the morning, small groups of girls in blue and white uniforms hold hands as they walk to school. But they are almost the only females we see, apart from the occasional woman in the fields whose brightly coloured back is bent over picking rice or cutting grass that she carries in an enormous bundle on her back.

Otherwise it is only men and boys who are in the streets. Gathered in small groups, drinking tea, stretched out on charpai (traditional string beds), breaking bricks, or weaving motorbikes dangerously in and out of the traffic in the towns.  The holders of the carts selling orange mangoes, shiny apples and tempting watermelons yell at them, as do the drivers of the brightly coloured painted trucks. The only other woman I see is on the back of one of the motorbikes, completely covered in a white burqa with a little bobble on the top that is the custom in this area of the Punjab.

We drive off the main road and bump through vivid green rice fields and over small culverts. I know by now there will be a protocol to my visits. When I arrive, the men and perhaps a few boys will meet me first. I will ask some questions, they will decide if they are happy for me to continue on to meet the women.

I will then go on to where a group of perhaps 50 or 60 women and a few girls are waiting for me. Their clothes are a rainbow of colours; they are dressed in their best.  The women’s leaders sit at the front and are the ones who speak. The very old are there too, and the very young, and almost everyone in between. Hordes of children run around, peek over walls, giggling, or sneak in for a hug with their mothers or grandmothers.

But time and again, the one group I really want to meet is absent. From the age of 12 until they are married, often by the time they are 15, sometimes at 18, the girls stay in their homes. ‘Too much work to do to meet you,’ say the older women. ‘They are busy in the house.’

So at first I try and talk to the 12 year olds. But in the five villages I visit in southern Sindh and central Punjab, there are no schools for girls – and precious few for boys as well. The girls struggle to speak in front of a big group.  Latifan, from Ghulam Husain Bohrio village in Sindh, hides behind her blue scarf and says she thinks she is about 12. She has two sisters and one brother. She is hugely embarrassed to be speaking even in front of other women and girls. No, she hasn’t been to school but she can read Qur’an. Her day consists of fetching water – there are only two handpumps for the whole village and often these are broken so she has to walk to the river about half a kilometre away – washing up, washing clothes, reading Qur’an, looking after her younger siblings and sewing and doing embroidery. She is not interested in playing games, she says, she has too much to do. Her father is often away fishing and her mother looks after their animals and sometimes has to take them away from the house so she is very busy.

I am finally allowed to talk to the girls between 14 and 20. We leave the meeting house, cross a ditch on a little bridge and enter a bare room with a bed that is someone’s house. We sit on a beautifully embroidered bedspread, quilted by one of the girls, and a group of around 10 young women squat on the floor in front of us. We are there on condition we don’t take any photos.  They tell me a little about their lives, which sound very similar to Latifan’s.

I ask them how their lives are different from their brothers’, and they giggle behind their scarves before telling me that some of their brothers go to school, some spend their time lounging about, but many learn to fish with their fathers from an early age. ‘We don’t feel different from them, says Zeinab, ‘We are both busy. And when they are out fishing their lives are hard while we are in the home and safe.’

How safe is another question. We have been given statistics about the numbers of women and men, boys and girls in the villages. Normally you would expect slightly more girls than boys, but in the first village we visit, there are 100 boys but only 77 girls. But no-one seems to be able to give us an explanation.  Perhaps this is because, unlike in other countries, in Pakistan, this is the norm. It is one of the few countries in the world where men and boys outnumber women and boys. And there seems to be agreement among academics and analysts that this is not because girls are aborted or killed at birth as they are in some other countries, but simply that the preference for sons means that girls are neglected and die before they reach puberty. In addition, rates of violence against women are extremely high. Statistics for Oxfam’s We Can Campaign against violence against women show that 80 per cent of women in Pakistan experience domestic violence, though no-one here will talk about it.

Few of the girls in Ghulam Husain Bohrio village have ever been to Jati, the nearest town a few kilometres away – except when they were forced to leave in 2010 by the floods.  Their lives are not very different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’, they say. They have no electricity or television, though they occasionally listen to the radio – for news, they say, looking at their elders from under their eyelashes, which makes us think it is probably to listen to music. Some of their fathers have mobile phones, but they have never used them. ‘We get married early, at 15 or 16, says Zeinab ‘and then we are too busy for much else.’

Nikki van der Gaag October  2012.

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