The “girl child” has become a topic that conjures up visions of negative statistics about the disappearing female foetus and the abuses heaped on female children. It is high time that we identify this term with positive imagery, precisely to counteract the negative statistics and make the girl baby an object of splendour and glory. Unfortunately, the “girl child” has become a topic of intensive debate and discussion, strategic policy-making and social administration. We need to now make her a subject of interactive relationships rather than an object of analysis, because while slogans of “Beti ko bachao” and “Send your daughter to school” are needed eye-catchers on billboards and bus-stands, the little wide-eyed wonder who survives her infancy is still taken for granted, neglected and left to her own devices. We need to study her situation, but more than that, we need to set in place dynamic living conditions for her to grow up and flourish in this world. We need to understand her anxieties and doubts, her sadness and her loneliness, and envelop her in layers of love and concern.
Our little girls are too often burdened with high expectations as a result of which she either slides into passive dullness or turns on her perceived persecutors like an uncoiled spring, lashing out with anger and fear. What she really needs is unconditional regard, sustained attention and warm appreciation so that she glows with energy and rides on the tides of time with courage and confidence. Only then can the girl child avoid turning into a subservient robot or a scheming minx. It is not in the nature of any child, female or male, to become a docile puppet or a simmering volcano. What the human infant require in the early years of development, is a dependable bond with mother and a unswerving commitment on the part of all caretakers , teachers, relatives and elders to nurture the little one and be consistent in care-giving, loving the girl child as a gift from the Almighty, a blessing to behold, a joy to relate to, an asset to the family, and an investment for society. This is a tall order indeed, yet not impossible to attain. It is certainly a goal that every social mission needs to put on its high priority list. The future of humanity is being shaped by the childhood of children. And the future of womankind is being shaped by the experiences of young girls today.
A few days ago I watched a mother happily play with her six-month-old baby girl. They looked into each others’ eyes and cooed tunefully as though singing a happy duet. Baby girl pumped up and down with glee, smiling from ear to ear and then looking up at the sky with not a care in the world. Her mother followed every movement of her neck and watched how her toes seemed to dance with the song of the universe. A divine glow seemed to surround both of them, and through the lens of my camera I could see the love of God made visible in human form. The relationship between mother and girl child before me gave new shape to my reservoir of images regarding the female of our species. Then the child’s father came in and folded her into his arms, caressing her hands, muttering baby sounds and kissing her on the forehead. Oh that all little babies, girls and boys could get such undivided parental attention in an on-going way, galloping from stage to stage with energy and enthusiasm. I was reminded of the passage from Mark 9:36, “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” The smile of the Creator is surely reflected in the smile of the mother, who in welcoming the baby girl into her life, welcomes the living God into her heart.
Later that week, while standing in the airport lounge in the check-in queue, I heard tingling laughter and suppressed giggles. Turning around I watched fascinated as a large woman in jeans played hide and seek with a five-year-old girl all around the wide spaces of the departure area. Their spirited dodging caught the attention of everyone around and soon others joined in the screams of delight as the two enjoyed their play with each other – all for the sheer pleasure of mutual interaction! Both were inventive in their running, back-tracking and swerving, encircling the waiting lines of passengers with the noise of a vibrant, entertaining interaction. They inspired another young mother to take her four-year-old for a ride around the group, perching her on top of the luggage trolley. Oh that all little children could get such opportunities for remaining in the carefree zone of childhood. Today’s parents are often too busy to spend time with their little girls in activities that do not require money or intelligence, activities that keep their souls united in the simple things that make children happy. Parents should let their children have continual access to them, permitting them to come close and feel cosily connected. Jesus was indignant when his disciples stopped the children from coming to him. He said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs… And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” Mk 10:14-16.
We need to question ourselves repeatedly and ask, “Are we sufficiently caring and compassionate towards the faults and foibles of our daughters and granddaughters, our nieces and grandnieces, our girl students and girl neighbours? Above all, are we sufficiently loving towards the women who look after them and are often tired and exhausted with their responsibilities? Do we stretch out our hands to lift the burdens off the shoulders of mothers, aunts, daughter-in-laws and sisters? Do we open up arenas for the women in our communities to find the time they need to care for their girls with leisure and pleasure, so that these children are well fed and emotionally fulfilled?
It is not enough to work for the survival of the female infant. We are duty bound to ensure that she has a non-toxic and supportive environment in which she is clearly shown how much she is wanted and loved, and how much she is valued for being herself. We can ensure that her childhood is not stolen from her and that she is allowed to be a child, absorbing the fountains of care that spring from her family of origin. In the bosom of her parents love she can blossom and expand, learning to walk with confidence and to co-operate wholeheartedly in community events. In this way she is imbued with respect for self, and with altruistic sensitivity for others. Parents and teachers are gradually understanding the multiple problems faced by little girls and acquiring the know-how of what to say and do to provide adequate protection to their bodies and proper guidance for their character formation, practical training in self-defence and methods to build up their intellectual and emotional capacities.
The birth of a girl baby is the beginning of a long and beautiful journey for parents, siblings and relatives. The girl child needs a well-researched diet, pleasant clothing related to weather conditions, a good supply of liquids and quiet space to draw, paint, mould and create, an audience to dance and sing for, and all the interesting toys and crafts that can fire her imagination and intelligence. She needs time to learn, to have fun, to play and to be safely cuddled by her loved ones. Health and hygiene are vital factors for girl children who physical problems are sometimes misunderstood and misdiagnosed. In my work with children in recent months I have put together the following norms for the girl child.
- Teachers and relatives need to be aware that family members can compete with mothers and unconsciously sever the link between mother and daughter. Mother’s views and needs are to be given importance and her authority is to be respected.
- Touch is a vital form of expressing love and yet there is a lot of confusion as to what kind of touch and who should monitor this. Little girls are often tweaked on the cheek, crushed in a tight hug, rubbed on the head, wacked on the bottom or poked in the chest as signs of affection. However, these are actually forms of subtle abuse and parents are sometimes unaware of how friends and neighbours, even servants and drivers show attention in misguided ways.
- Supervision during play is important as bullying is on the rise in contemporary society.
- Lyrics of songs such as those of Barbie Girl are to be assiduously avoided as they train girls to lower their resistance to physical abuse and treat touch as a public license for all.
- Playthings should include dolls of all shapes and colours. Fair-skinned, blue-eyed dolls give girls an unnatural stereotype to emulate. Girls need to play with toy cars, trains and cranes, mechanical games and outdoor sports.
- Girls clothing in the markets today are usually unsuitable for wear. They expose shoulders, chest, armpits, back, legs and toes in ways that give a little girl imbibes a convoluted body image. This is especially so when boys the same age are well covered with collars, sleeves and boots. Skin exposure for little girls can lead to several personal and interpersonal problems that affect relationships and self-respect in later years.
- The sleeping arrangements for girls need to be supervised especially on family picnics where male cousins are present. Sleepovers at parties are becoming popular in some Indian cities, but these are often the scene of unseemly teasing and oppression.
- Girls need to be given continual reassurance that they belong in the family and are forever the daughters of their parents.
- Training in the emotional aspects of healthy parenting is essential for all parents as children are becoming more and more emotionally literate and vocal about relationships, feelings and commitments.
The birthing and parenting of the girl child, accompanying her journey into youth and womanhood is indeed a sacred duty and privilege. Life is precious, and given the negative attitudes and apprehensions with regard to the girl child, her life should be treated as important, precious and invaluable. Her growth and healing is our combined duty. It is for us to ensure that she can rise from the bed of depression and deterioration, from being oppressed, to being free. We are inspired in this task by the actions and words of Jesus: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum” which means, ‘Little girl, get up!”
Pauline Cooperator, New Delhi