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*** THE GIRL CHILD: A CRITICAL CONCERN
Baha'i International Community statement presented under the title "Women in Development"to the Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
New York, USA
22 April 1991
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"We must declare that her capacity is equal, even greater than man's. This will inspire her with hope and ambition, and her susceptibilities for advancement will continually increase."
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The Baha'i International Community welcomes UNICEF's efforts to focus attention on the plight of the girl child. Since deciding a year ago to give the girl child priority, UNICEF has contributed significantly to an increase in global awareness of the effects of gender discrimination on millions of girl children. By funding research, encouraging the disaggregation of data, disseminating information, and requiring that UNICEF programs be sensitive to the needs of girls, UNICEF has initiated a process that deserves ongoing, wholehearted support.
In the view of the Baha'i International Community, the advancement of civilization now requires the full participation of everyone, including women. For this to happen, girl children as well as boy children must be valued by their families and by society. We share UNICEF's distress at the blatant neglect of girl children, justified in many parts of the world as part of the culture. We concur with the recommendation, set forth in the Progress report on achievements made in the implementation of UNICEF policy on women in development (E/ICEF/1991/L.5), that UNICEF broaden its approach to maternal health to include an attempt to alter factors that affect girl's and women's health before maternity, including harmful traditional attitudes and practices.
Not only must girl children receive adequate food, health care, and education, they must be given every opportunity to develop their capacities. Girls will not only render service to humanity as mothers and first educators of the next generation, but, as women, they will make special contributions to the creation of a just world order-an order characterized by vigor, cooperation, harmony, and a degree of compassion never before witnessed in history. Mothers can now be the primary agents for empowering individuals to transform society. They alone can inculcate in their children the self-esteem and respect for others essential for the advancement of civilization. It is clear, then, that the station of mothers, increasingly denigrated in many societies, is in reality of the greatest importance and highest merit.
Women and girls must be educated-spiritually, emotionally and intellectually-because a mother cannot pass on what she does not have. A child needs a nurturing environment and wise guidance in the first years of life in order to develop sound character and a well trained mind. If the mother is unable, because of her own deficiencies, to provide her children with experiences which will equip them for later, formal schooling, they will find themselves at a serious, often crippling, disadvantage. It must be stressed, however, that this dual responsibility of developing the child's character and stimulating his intellect also belongs to the family as a whole, including the father and grandparents, and to the community. As Dr. Aidoo pointed out in her statement to the 1991 Commission on the Status of Women, "The family context provides unique opportunities for boy children and men to become involved in changing the status of the girl child and women." NGOs can also contribute substantially by focusing attention on the girl child in their community-based activities.
As the sexes are equal in intellectual capacity and in potential to serve humanity, girls and boys should study the same curriculum. The way should be open for women and girls to enter all spheres of human endeavor, including the arts and sciences, agriculture, commerce, industry and the affairs of state. There is no natural limit on women's ability.
Presently the world is caught in a cycle of miseducation wherein harmful character traits are passed from one generation to the next, retarding social progress. One source of this miseducation is the failure to respect women, even in the home. The denial of equality between the sexes perpetrates an injustice against one-half of the world's population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the work place, to political life, and ultimately to international relations. The world can ill afford the consequences of such ignorance and injustice, especially at this critical moment when prospects for establishing peace on this planet are bright.
The cause of universal education deserves the utmost support that the governments of the world can lend it. For ignorance is indisputably the principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples and the perpetuation of prejudice. No nation can achieve success unless education is accorded all its citizens. Lack of resources limits the ability of many nations to fulfill this necessity, imposing a certain ordering of priorities. The decision-making agencies involved would do well to consider giving first priority to the education of women and girls, since it is through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively and rapidly diffused throughout society.
The Baha'i International Community congratulates UNICEF for its initiatives and urges the UNICEF Executive Board to continue its important emphasis on the needs of the girl child.
[This essay was published in The Greatness Which Might Be Theirs, a compilation of reflections on the Agenda and Platform for Action for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women: Equality, Development and Peace, published for distribution at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the parallel NGO Forum in Huairou, China, August/September 1995.]
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UN Document #E/ICEF/1991/NGO/7