October 11 marks the fifth annual International Day of the Girl. The UN Women website states in relation to this: “As a particularly vulnerable demographic, adolescent girls face social, economic and political barriers. While they hold the potential to become leaders and effect change, their empowerment can be hindered by factors such as unwanted pregnancy, forced early marriage, gender-based violence and limited access to higher education and reproductive health services.”
This is prefaced with the inspiring words “Girls are our future”, yet the focus is immediately turned to unwanted pregnancy and access to reproductive health services. Rather than taking the opportunity to recognize the beautiful and unique ability women have to bear children, it instead places the focus on minimizing her femaleness.
Sexual violence and forced early marriages are certainly problems that need to be addressed in order to increase women’s sense of security and realm of opportunities. But to suggest that abortion is the solution – or even part of the solution – is to continue to avoid the real problems. Allowing girls to quickly and easily end unwanted pregnancies does nothing to address sexual violence or child marriage. This myth has been so well perpetrated that the world is coming to believe it.
In fact, abortion tells girls they have a future on men’s terms. The focus put forward by the United Nations through this international event is telling girls that they will have opportunities and equality if they can be less like women and more like men. Having children is viewed as a hindrance to what women should really want, and raising a family is seen as a lost opportunity to do more with one’s life.
But girls are our future not only because of all the other leadership roles they can fill, but also precisely because they can raise children. Women who have the ability and opportunity to instill in their children a love of learning, care for others, and passion for justice and equality impact our future infinitely more than those who are told to kill their babies in the fight for themselves. Women can teach both daughters and sons that equality doesn’t always mean “the same”, but rather is based on equal value and respect.
Women can, and should, do anything they want, and have the freedom to do so. But if a girl is told that she should not want children, or that being a mother is underachieving, the message we are sending is that her impact on the future is limited only to herself. She is told that freedom is more important than love, power is more important than service, and equality is still defined by a man’s standard.
Empowering women means ensuring they have access to excellent education, social support, and economic stability so all opportunities are available to them. But it also means telling them that their role as women can include more than one thing, and both can qualify as success. It means building a culture where men value women too highly to take advantage of them, a culture where violence against women comes with costly consequences. It means systematically building a culture where “unplanned” does not mean “unwanted”, where excellent, accessible health care is about caring, not killing.
The pressure on women to delay and/or limit their childbearing is significant in Western countries, and we seem determined to push the same mindset on a broader global scale. Whether this is colonial and condescending or simply an attempt to justify our own (im)moral stance as a culture is unclear.
Girls face immense barriers to equality around the world, despite repeated attempts and international initiatives to balance these inequities. The International Day of the Girl should focus on gender-based violence and injustice, on access to excellent medical care, quality education, and the ending of child marriage. To shift the focus to pregnancy and abortion access does nothing to enhance girls’ prospects, but simply reinforces the message that they need to earn equality by becoming more like men.
Anna Nienhius is the Research and Policy Coordinator for WeNeedaLAW.ca, a public awareness campaign that mobilizes Canadians for the purpose of passing laws that protect pre-born children.