by Barry Edelson


The Expendable Girl


In a rare instance of international consensus, people around the world appeared sincerely horrified by the attempted murder of a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, who committed the unspeakable offense of advocating for the education of girls in her country. Even the government of Pakistan, which, to put it charitably, has a mixed record when it comes to defending religious and cultural tolerance, made a forceful declaration of solidarity with Malala Yousafzai, who was airlifted to England for medical treatment. The Taliban, who are somehow unfamiliar with Islamic admonitions against immodesty, reiterated their intention to kill Malala, demonstrating yet again and in no uncertain terms that they are beyond the reach of reason or human decency, and therefore undeserving of anything but the early departure from this world that they crave so morbidly.

It would be comforting to suppose that the subjugation of the female half of our species was relegated to the darker places of the Earth, but this is sadly far from true. The attack on Malala happened just around the time when PBS aired the documentary "Half the Sky", based on the book of the same name by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn, about the mistreatment of women and girls across a wide swathe of the planet. In country after country, the authors document abuse in its many forms: widespread domestic violence that is unchecked by either the law or social opprobrium; the selling of very young girls into slavery and prostitution; the total absence of property rights or other legal protections for women; infibulation, or ritual female circumcision, which is practiced widely in many countries and is the cause of lifelong health problems including, ironically, the inability to give birth without enormous risks to both mother and baby; the inaccessibility of basic medical services, particularly obstetric care, that leads to uncountable numbers of unnecessary deaths of mothers and infants; a dearth of proper education.

To be sure, boys in very poor places also suffer greatly and needlessly, but the plight of girls is particularly acute because of the complete lack of legal standing for women in numerous male-dominated societies, in which the life of a girl is simply of little or no value. Kristof and WuDunn put a human face on an almost unimaginable scale of suffering, and also portray the efforts of some of the courageous women who strive to provide desperately needed help to some of the millions of girls who would otherwise live and die with barely a hint of love or compassion entering their brief and utterly forgotten lives.

Reducing children to disposable bits of property is hardly unique to the more unenlightened patches of the globe, though we would hardly know of it if we relied on the regular news media to tell us about it. Newspapers, long the bastions of seriously investigative reporting, are struggling merely to remain relevant and profitable in the digital era, and we can no longer can depend on even the best of them to bring the world to our doorsteps with the morning paper. Instead, we are treated to sensational stories, such as the murder of two children by a nanny that landed above the fold on the front page of The New York Times last month, not once but two days running. It was indeed a gruesome and and newsworthy story, but are not the violent deaths of hundreds of children, which get barely a mention in the daily screed that now passes for journalism, equally as newsworthy? Is it too critical to ask whether the murder of two white children in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood is any more horrific than that of a black or hispanic child in public housing? How many stories about the abuse and death of a child in the inner city can you recall reading about in the last year? Or the last 10 years? Yes, occasionally one bubbles to the surface and grabs the attention of the marauding tabloids for a while, but this does little to give us a sense of the scale of the problem, or the absence of any concerted efforts to solve it.

Murder is a leading cause
of death among children
around the world.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2007 (the last year for which such statistics are readily available) 398 children under the age of 5 in the United States died by what is statistically called "assault (homicide)". In other words, they suffered a violent death, invariably at the hands of the someone in their own household. This makes murder the third leading cause of death among children in this age group. More than 60 percent of these children were black or hispanic. How many of these killings made it to the front page of any newspaper? Of course, the relatively small number of infants and toddlers who are beaten or starved or neglected to death masks the vastly greater number who survive, only to be serially abused throughout their childhoods, many of whom find themselves in foster care, and who represent an even more appalling number whose mistreatment is never even reported to the public agencies that are charged with protecting them.

The overwhelmed and underpaid case worker, who fights an uphill battle every day to rescue children from abusive parents, all the while attempting to navigate a tortuous and poorly funded bureaucracy, has become a kind of social cliché. But what have we done as a society to lighten the load of social workers, to make it easier for them to successfully rehabilitate the lives of the children in their care, or even to compensate them adequately for their efforts? When the government's budget ax falls, they are lampooned as just so many useless public appendages who are milking the taxpayer dry. Talk about a thankless job.

It seems understandable to us that advocates in many nations of the "third world" who fight for the rights and protections of young girls would face a hostile society and an unresponsive government. But our meager official efforts to address these problems, which are thankfully on a smaller scale, are nonetheless wholly inadequate to the magnitude of the task. Few disconnects between political rhetoric, which constantly reminds us how much our candidates care about children, and political reality, which reveals the elected as indifferent and the system as unreformable, have such dire consequences for so many.

When and if Malala recovers from her near-fatal injuries, and if she eludes further attempts by her attackers to finish her off, she will return to a country that may treat her as a celebrity, for a time, but which will remain stubbornly resistant to the kind of change for which she was targeted in the first place. Her plight has no doubt touched a chord of compassion at home, but it remains to be seen if that compassion can be turned into action. One suspects that the outpouring of sympathy would not have been so widespread had she been a strident woman and not a vulnerable adolescent. In a country that has become a byword for factionalism, and whose government enjoys a justly deserved reputation for turning a blind eye to the extremism within its midst, it is hardly surprising that such a crime took place. The women profiled in "Half the Sky" who take up arms against their deeply entrenched authoritarian societies, at great personal risk and sacrifice, could tell Malala a thing or two about the staunch opposition she can expect to face as her unlikely moment of fame devolves into the frustrating daily slog of activism. It would be shocking indeed if this episode led to any real change in her very conservative country, but there is precious little hope otherwise for its legions of suffering children.


November 22, 2012


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