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Mary was so embarrassed she couldn’t bear to meet the nurse’s eyes. She knew the health worker would be disappointed that her star student had ignored all she had learnt about HIV at the village clinic. But Mary had no choice: her husband, who is HIV+, insisted on having unprotected intercourse. To refuse him was to risk losing her three young children. Like millions of women in the developing world, tradition dictates that Mary has no right to the babies to whom she gave birth. In order to stay with her children, she must obey her husband for fear he will throw her out. Given Mary’s dilemma, it is hardly a mystery that HIV continues to spread.

Each March, the United Nations in New York buzzes with meetings about women’s rights, held under the auspices of the Commission on the Status of Women. Number five on the UN’s list of 17 sustainable development goals, after such modest aspirations as ending poverty, is gender equality and empowering girls and women. But how realistic are these worthy aims unless the international community prioritizes confronting harmful traditions such as polygamy, the bride price, early marriage and accepting that fathers have child custody?

At the root of each of these customs is the dismally low status of girls and women in many parts of the globe. While world leaders may sign on to UN conventions guaranteeing their female citizens equality, how many will risk unpopularity by challenging ingrained culture, especially in rural communities? And when will politicians and diplomats in the wealthy white world require their opposite numbers in developing countries to take a lead, rather than ratifying treaties they have no intention of enforcing?

Ditch the Hollywood happy family fantasy

Forget the clichés about how much parents care for their children, or how people marry for love. These sentimental assumptions simply do not apply in many poor societies, any more than they do in the wealthy world.

As long as female children are seen as a commodity to be sold at the first opportunity, they will be forced to drop out of school to get married. When girls give birth before the age of 15 they are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women who give birth in their twenties. The health risks of early marriage also affect their offspring: mothers younger than 18 have a 60% greater chance that their babies will die in their first year. In Niger, 75% of girls marry younger than 18; in Chad it is 72%; and in Mali 71%. It is hardly a coincidence that these countries are among the world’s most wretched, with the lowest levels of literacy and development.

According to the UN population fund, rural girls are especially at risk of early marriage: one in three drop out of secondary school because their parents marry them off before they have lost their economic value (their virginity). HIV is the leading cause of death among girls age between 10 and 19, and suicide is the second greatest cause.

When harmful traditions are justified by reference to religion, they are even harder to challenge. Some Muslim societies allow child marriage because the Prophet married his 3rd wife Aisha when she was 6, and consummated the union when she was 9. Hence Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti maintains that the marriage of girls age 10 is in keeping with Islam.

In Nigeria’s federal structure, its Islamic states prevented legal attempts to prohibit child marriage, saying it was un-Islamic. In 2013, it was revealed that one Nigerian senator who was prominent in the campaign to keep child marriage, had wed a 13-year-old for whom he paid $100,000.

Other countries are also going backward: Yemen has abolished its minimum age for child marriage, citing Islamic tradition. It was in Yemen that the case of eight-year-old Rawa made headlines when she bled to death on her wedding night. She had been married to a man five times her age.

There is also a link between youthful brides and high levels of domestic violence. Girls have neither the confidence nor experience to assert themselves against older husbands. Moreover, in many places girls are forced to marry their rapists to save their family’s “honor,” hardly an ideal domestic situation.

The low status of girls is also linked to more general violence in society. For instance, both rebel militias and the army in South Sudan are notorious for raping and brutalizing women. According to researcher Lydia Stone, “The men committing these atrocities did not appear from nowhere…. they are the products of an environment that has gradually and consistently tolerated and normalized violence against the most vulnerable, in particular women and girls.” (Lydia Stone, “Dowry and Division: youth and state building in South Sudan,” 2013.)

The paradox is that although women are often shamed for giving birth to girls, it is girls that are a source of family wealth when their parents sell them off. Yet these girls grow up being told they are a nuisance. They may be fed less, denied school or medical help.

In many places a boy is valued because he will theoretically stay with his parents when he marries, and his wife will become their servant who will dutifully care for them in their old age. Yet increasingly it is clear that reality has overtaken these assumptions. In poor, rural areas, boys struggle to find employment. At best, they may tend the family livestock or do subsistence farming, vulnerable to climate-change-related drought and desertification.

What can be done?

Change must come from politicians in the developing world. In traditional societies, leaders are often respected and listened to, as if they are father figures. If these politicians had the spine to contradict or confront harmful practices, using medical evidence, their people might listen. They must also appeal to the parents’ self-interest with data showing that an educated girl is more likely to provide her family with economic benefits. That is possible using radio and TV shows, both drama and phone-ins, that reach remote areas, backed by the authority of politicians willing to challenge, guide and lead public opinion.

The wealthy, white world can also play a role by directing the way it spends its foreign aid, and the conditions it attaches to supporting governments in the developing world. The World Bank points to the success of paying families to keep their daughters at school. Pilot schemes in Malawi, Ethiopia, and India have all been successful. Similar large-scale and long-established programs in Latin America have had a profound effect on lifting families out of poverty, as well as keeping girls in school. It would help if schools were worth attending, if teachers turned up each day and were qualified, and if their pay arrived on time.

What is required is the will to turn slogans about female empowerment into a village-by-village reality. Unless harmful, ingrained traditions are tackled, all the UN conventions and development goals in the world won’t allow girls to realize their potential.

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