by Yong Ting Jin
Come celebrate the life of the girl child!
Lamentation and Dreams of a Girl Child 
Because I am a girl …
Because I am a child …
Because I want to live
I was denied my human rights.
Why? Why? Why?
While other children are enjoying
a home and a garden,
the garbage heap is my garden
and the street my home.
Why? Why? Why?
They sing, “Jesus loves the little children...”
does that include me?
They say I am special
do they really mean it?
I must keep going …
I will survive. I will dance. I can dream.
I dream of chasing butterflies and dancing with bamboo trees.
I dream of a safe and loving home,
having clean clothes, good smelling food
and colourful story books.
I dream of going to school.
I dream of becoming a doctor
to heal broken bodies, fever and TB.
I dream of becoming a teacher,
to teach grownups how to treat children well.
I dream of becoming a farmer,
to produce enough rice for all,
I dream of becoming a woman,
strong and gentle, loving, peaceful and wise.
And why not?
The theme you have chosen for this assembly is yet again very significant for the federation and the global ecumenical community. A theme and issue that comes alive! The issue of the girl child is truly one of grave concern for all communities. It is my belief the dire situation of the girl child was instrumental in bringing about the Convention on the Rights of the Child that the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1989. The issue of the girl child was consequently highlighted and received special attention until it finally entered the agenda at the Fourth World Women Conference in Beijing 1995. It was identified and given priority as the 12th critical area of concern and is integrated into every section of the Beijing Platform for Action. This is brought about by sheer hard work and persistent campaigns of many non-government women organizations and the United Nations Children’s Fund, especially those based in Africa, South Asia and the West.
Even with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and being given priority in the Beijing Platform for Action, what is the life and situation of girl children today? I would like to share with you three sad stories from Malaysia.
Nurulhuda, Haserawati, the trader’s daughter are only three among thousands of children who are victims of sexual abuse in Malaysia. Police statistics between the years 2000 and April 2003, show that there were 2,314 reported cases of child rape nationwide. It is estimated that for every case reported 10 cases go unreported.
Violence against girls such as sexual abuse in various forms is prevalent in many societies and communities worldwide; including the church and religious institutions. The rapists and perpetrators are most often somebody’s grandfather or father, the victim’s own father, relative or friend, or even the church ‘father’/pastor like in this Story of Mabel:
It was a grave crime committed by a pastor and at the same time barangay (smallest unit of the town/city) captain in their place. At 16, Mabel can now recount her story.
There’s this pastor who was fond of her. He gave her money, candies, food then afterwards mashed her breasts and fingered her private parts. This happened from the time she was nine up to when she was 13. When she was only nine years old, he gave her some money to buy candies then brought her to the backyard, removed her panty while she was under the threat that he would wound her vagina if she did not masturbate him.
Years after that incident, the pastor still had the nerve to continue buying things for her. Mabel was asked why she kept following his orders and she replied, “Because he is a pastor I obey whatever he says.”… Today the perpetrator is no longer a pastor but the imprints of the crime will always remain with Mabel.
Many such alarming stories from the Old Testament come to mind.
In Genesis and Judges, two fathers, Lot and the old man of Gibeah (Gen. 19:8; Jud. 19:23-24) offered their virgin daughters to the men of the city to be gang raped in order to protect their male visitors.
In his bargain with God, Jephthah promised the life of the first person who comes to meet him on returning home after a military victory. On reaching home, his only child and daughter rushed out to greet him with great joy. But he sadly kept his vow and presented the life of his daughter as an offering to God (Jud. 11:34-40).
In the New Testament, with great contrast, we come across an entirely different story during the time of Jesus. This story in Mark shows the love of a father, Jairus, for his dying daughter. Jairus, a high-ranking official of the Synagogue loved his only girl child so dearly that he wants to protect and preserve her life. He was desperate; hence he was willing to humbly kneel before Jesus to plead for his little girl’s healing. Let us hear now the story of Mark as it is directly translated from the Greek version of the Gospel.
21 Jesus returned across the Sea of Galilee. When he landed back on the other side, a large crowd gathered. The president of the Jewish community in the synagogue, Jairus, hurried to meet Jesus and fell on his knees pleading with him:
My young daughter’s dying!
Please come and touch her so she can be made well.
I don’t want her to die!
Jesus agreed to see her so they left the shore, making their way towards the house of Jairus. The crowd went along too and was soon making it difficult for him to get to the house.
[WOMAN WITH FLOW OF BLOOD]
35 While the two of them were talking, word was brought to Jairus that his twelve-year-old daughter had died. Don’t worry Jesus about her, the messenger said, Come home and prepare to bury her. Jesus overheard and said gently to Jairus:
God is with you!
Jesus asked Peter, James and John to go with him to the house. There were now so many people there and it was quite noisy as funeral preparations had begun. Jesus went into the house and shouted:
Why have you begun mourning?
The child has not died.
She’s just sleeping!
His words were greeted with jeering and laughter. Jesus sent everyone out of the house and took Jairus, the girl’s mother and his three friends into the room. Taking the girl by the hand he said in a strong voice:
She did, and began walking around. Her parents and Jesus’ companions were overcome with astonishment. Jesus told them not to talk to others about what had happened.
Give her something to eat!
Jesus told her parents.
The life of a girl child is important, and Jesus took Jairus’ little girl’s life seriously. He agreed immediately and left upon hearing the news of her illness. She was a girl child loved most dearly by her father and mother. When news of her death arrived, and Jairus was told not to bother Jesus anymore, Jesus overheard and consoled Jairus: “Don’t panic. God is with you!” and continued his journey there, undeterred. When Jesus stated the child had not died, the “jeering and laughter” of the people gathered around the family also did not disturb him. Instead he focused his attention on the girl, and went to her taking Jairus, the girl’s mother and his three friends.
The story of the daughter of Jairus begins in Mark verse 21, but is diverted almost immediately by another incident from verses 25 to 34: the woman with a haemorrhage. Then it continues from verse 35 and finally ends only in verse 43. It is a scenario with 2 happenings, one placed within the other. We are familiar with these 2 stories as recounted by the writer of Mark’s Gospel.
The writer seems to have an important message to convey to the readers by linking and giving significance to the two “daughters”. The woman suffered and sought for a cure in vain for twelve years, the life-time of Jairus’ daughter. The young girl could have begun to menstruate. A Jewish girl by social custom attains puberty and is ready for marriage but she was on the verge of losing her life. Jesus restored life to the two “daughters”. While the girl is ready to be a mature female, the woman suffers from her femaleness. Jesus brought them wholeness of being—wholeness [shalom] in which they recovered social, religious, and spiritual well-being. Jesus brought them back into the family, social and religious community where they should belong.
Unlike the nameless woman with a flow of blood who was on her own, Jairus was a man of economic, social and religious standing. He had power and authority; he commanded honour and respect as a religious leader. He spoke for his daughter as head of his family. Though the text is silent about the girl’s mother, she might have been heartbroken and felt totally helpless watching her child pass away after twelve hard years of bringing her up into womanhood. Perhaps she played a crucial role in pressing Jairus or agreed with him that he should seek for Jesus their daughter’s healing.
The author of Mark’s Gospel had a central running theme: God’s Reign [Kingdom of God]. Jesus began his mission announcing the Good News of God’s “baseleia” [Kingdom].
Your time is up!
You are about to experience the
presence of God in a new way!
Don’t leave God out of your thinking!
Take God seriously! [Mark 1:15]
Mark 1:15 points to a new time, God’s time “kairos”, God’s presence and participation in human history.
Jesus spoke within the context of Roman domination and oppression over people in Palestine. But the Jewish elite class were collaborators of the system and society. Jesus also rejected the system of religion built on the distinction between the “pure” and “impure” [Mk 7: 1-23; Leviticus laws]. He broke this barrier by coming into close contact with the “impure” haemorrhaging woman and the “polluted” dead girl’s corpse.
Palestine then was also a place influenced by a great number of cultures namely the Greek, Roman, Oriental and Jewish. The society and its social structures were highly hierarchical and patriarchal. More than just speaking against the injustices and evils of the structures, Jesus criticised and refuted the corruption of these religious and political leaders. He called them foxes and vipers, exposing them as ego lovers of power, position and wealth. Hence we see Jesus undermining and confronting many an established tradition and institution in the areas of religion, social practices, norms and politics.
To counter the forces of anti-life, Jesus offered a different vision, the vision of “baseleia”. He spoke of new life and a new way of living, a new order of life which is a transformation for the whole of life. The old system and structures have to go because God’s Reign is now here to stay. Jesus said with the coming of the “baseleia”, the old structures and life styles could not be left intact. As in the parable of the wineskins, it’s like new wine bursting old wineskins calling for the creation of new ones (Mk 2:21-22). Likewise a piece of new cloth is not suitable for an old cloth. His healings were acts of liberation from every force that enslaved or destroyed people. It is in this context and vision that the two healing stories happened: Jesus restored the lives of the woman and little girl. He brought them wholeness of new life, which is a new relationship with God and people, a new way of life in the “baseleia”.
Today, however, the old order of life is still dominant and the anti-life forces continue to prevail. We are pulled and torn in a world of contradictions, and we are told this is globalisation! Violence against girls and women are rampant in our societies and communities at all levels. Consider the next two stories of “Two faces of the Prostituted Girl Child in the Philippines”:
Luisa, 15 years old says: “He succeeded in raping me and even insulted me... My first experience with a customer was really frightening and painful. My genitals were lacerated and I froze…” [A prostituted girl child working in Cebu City, in one of the case studies documented by an organisation working with prostituted children in sex tourism.]
Aida, 13 years old says: “Why are we the ones being pinned down by the community and police officers? What about our partners—the men who use us?” [A child who stalks the streets of Davao City to allegedly engage in “free sex”]
The stories of Luisa and Aida are but two stories of an alarmingly growing number of prostituted Filipino girl children. Luisa is among the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 prostituted Filipino children under the age of 18.
Child prostitution has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Children are bought, sold and traded like consumer goods in mass production. In Brazil alone between 250,000 and 500,000 children are traded for sex, and a recent study concluded that the number of child prostitutes had tripled in Colombia over three years.
But the centre of the child sex industry is Asia. The children’s advocacy groups assert that there are about 60,000 child prostitutes in the Philippines, about 400,000 in India and about 600,000 in Thailand. Most of the children are girls under 16. The figures by now would have increased greatly.
The problem of using girl children and women as sex objects lies deep in the ideology of patriarchy that values the male gender. Hear now the pitiful cry of a girl child in a poem that reveals the reality of female infanticide in India where there is a preference for the boy child.
Oh! Spare Me!
Oh! Spare me, my mother,
Grant me my right to life.
Let not my voice be hushed,
Just because I am a girl.
Allow me the view of the golden sunrise,
Springing from the mighty sea.
Let each flower smile on me,
“Life is full of hope”, they say.
Not my fault, to be a girl,
Nip me not in the bud itself,
Crush not precious life out of me,
Let me blossom forth, in this garden of humanity.
Oh! Spare my life, dear mother,
Give me a chance to thrive,
To fulfill God’s unique plan,
For transmitting life through me, too.
There is a similar reality in China, and many other countries in varying degrees. A case study on female infanticide in India and China presents this summary:
The phenomenon of female infanticide is as old as many cultures, and has likely accounted for millions of gender-selective deaths throughout history. It remains a critical concern in a number of “Third World” countries today, notably the two most populous countries on earth, China and India. In all cases, specifically female infanticide reflects the low status accorded to women in most parts of the world; it is arguably the most brutal and destructive manifestation of the anti-female bias that pervades “patriarchal” societies. It is closely linked to the phenomena of sex-selective abortion, which targets female fetuses almost exclusively, and neglect of girl children.
In China, since the one child per family policy was introduced in 1979, 15 million female babies have gone missing from China’s demographics.
Martha Pushparani wrote, “In South Asia, the issue is more glaring. It is obvious that the female population here is going down. This is due to female child mortality, female foeticide, infanticide, child abuse, early work burden, sexual abuse, denial of childhood rights of education, and lack of health care and nutrition. In India particularly high rate of female infanticide due to dowry harassment is the basic social problem which demands greater attention.” She said: “The institutions of family, religion and caste have always valued boys more than girls and have taken full social and physical control of the girl child.”
It is precisely in this context that the word of Jesus rings true. Healing and wholeness is clearly a visible sign of God’s Reign. For in the new order of life there is no place for such evil structures and acts of violence. There is no denial of one’s human value, dignity, and self worth, as girls are made in the image of God as boys. Jesus acted with urgency to bring wholeness to the little girl who was sick in body, to all suffering girl children who are violated and wounded in body, mind and spirit. Jesus made a specific inclusion of children in Mk 10: 14 “for to such belongs the kingdom of God” [RSV] or “It is children like these who help us understand that God is present in our midst”. We are God’s agents to bring healing and wholeness to all suffering children, most especially girl children, for they belong to the Reign of God.
An important unpublished document was produced by an expert group in preparation for the “High-level Intergovernmental Meeting on Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, Bangkok, on 22-24 March 2004”. The issue of the girl child was one of the twelve areas under review by this expert group that examined the gaps and challenges related to achieving the commitments of the Beijing Platform of Action for Women. The document had this to say:
L. The Girl-child
The problems of mortality and malnutrition among female children remain high in some parts of the region. The same is true for the vulnerability of girls to HIV/AIDS, juvenile prostitution and child pornography. Female genital mutilation, child marriage, early pregnancy, gender-selective abortion, and female infanticide are some of the results of son-preference customs and practices. Where girls are subjugated by tradition and customary practice to lower status than boys, they have less access to food, health care and education.
Emphasis is being given to the dissemination of information on sexual and reproductive health to young adolescents. Violence against children in all its forms—sexual exploitation, child prostitution, child pornography or rape—must be addressed. Because children, unlike adults, are incapable of protecting themselves, their right to be protected against violence and exploitation must be legally provided for.
Thousands of adolescents (especially girls) each year are being subjected to sexual abuse, violence and trafficking (both inter and intra-regional). The fear caused by the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in the region has exposed and highlighted the dangers of lack of youth-friendly reproductive health information and services for young people. In many countries, the topic of adolescent sexuality is politically and culturally sensitive; health-care providers have negative attitudes towards unmarried adolescents, particularly females seeking family planning services and diagnosis and treatment of STDs; and adolescents themselves are reluctant to use the services out of fear, ignorance or social stigma. Besides, the quality of adolescent reproductive health services is poor. While private clinics do provide better services, the cost acts as major deterrent discouraging adolescents seeking such services.
This also leads to the issue of the labour (paid and unpaid) of children, especially girl-children. It has been estimated that the largest child labour population in the world is to be found in the Asian region—120 million between 5 to 14 years of age who are fully at work and more than twice that many (an estimated 250 million) for whom work is at least a secondary activity (ILO-IPEC 1997). The majority of child labourers in South and South-East Asia are to be found in home-based, agricultural or informal sector and service activities, although there are some cases in manufacturing employment as well. These reflect the fact that the rapid economic growth in some sectors and regions—along with widespread poverty of the labour supply households—has involved the drawing of children into commercial and industrial activity.
It has been noted that girls are being disproportionately employed for work in urban and rural areas in comparison with boys, and there is a significant correlation of this trend with the relative rates of school dropout for boys and girls. Certainly in home-based work, there tends to be a heavy emphasis on the unpaid labour of the girl-child, including not only such activities as childcare and housework, but also piecework under putting-out arrangements. The drastic reduction of spending on social welfare and safety nets and reduced government budgets on essential services to the poor in countries that are experiencing economic crisis and/or structural adjustment programmes, is likely to contribute directly to the growing incidence of child labour, both by increasing poverty in wage-based households and reducing the availability of public services. The issue of female child labour may thus become one of growing significance.
As mentioned earlier, the girl child is accorded all the rights within the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989. However, persistent discrimination and violation of the rights of the girl child prevail. Ten years after Beijing 1995, even though the rights of the girl child is acknowledged, the implementation of the Convention for the girl child is still far from the mark. Indeed it is a critical area of concern for all.
“Taking the girl by the hand, he (Jesus) said in a strong voice: “Talitha, koumi, Little girl! Get up! Jesus came to touch and speak directly to the little girl. The girl awoke, stood up and began to walk about. Her parents and the three men were astonished. What is going to happen to the girl and her parents or family now? Could their life be normal again, like before as though nothing had happened? Would the parents who had a foretaste of Jesus’ new order of life follow the Jewish tradition of marrying her off as a girl child at 12 or a few years later? Except for her action of walking about, the text is silent about what would happen thereafter.
But we know in Jewish culture, a girl of her age is mature and ready for marriage. She is facing two things: a transition towards womanhood; and “she is likely to pass from the authority of her father to that of her husband”. Living under a patriarchal culture, she is subjected to the religious law of purity and impurity when she goes through the menstrual cycle. She is “vulnerable to subjugation, abuse and violence because she is woman. Reaching womanhood is perhaps even considered death.” We do not know exactly how the young woman’s life turned out to be.
But many of us know child marriage has existed for centuries. It has long been a crucial issue. While many women living in this modern age of globalisation are getting married at a later age, there are still more than 51 million adolescent girls aged 15-19 who are married. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) recently launched a photo essay giving voice to the stories and experiences of women like Rakiya, Rohini, Bijli and Takia. Hear the story of Rakiya:
Rakiya is one of the women who shares her story in this photo essay. She was married at 12 in Nigeria. Rakiya sells bean cakes by the side of the road to pay for food and her boys’ schooling.
As a young girl, she dreamed of an education for herself. But she would never see the inside of a classroom. Instead, betrothed at 11 and married at 12, she was continuously raped within marriage. Her own father beat her into submitting to her husband. And two months before her 13th birthday, she delivered her first child.
Widowed at 20, with five children-and a sixth on the way-Rakiya sold everything she owned to feed her boys. When there was nothing left, she sold herself. Finally, she resolved to find another way. So Rakiya sells bean cakes by the side of the road.
“It is the ignorance of our people” that leads to child marriage, Rakiya says. “They believe that the girl will spoil. I never fooled around with men until I found myself in a terrible situation and I had to use what God has given me to feed my children.”
Some reasons cited why girls are married early are due to their gender status; men control her sexuality; economic burden and poverty drive them into early marriages. This often gives rise to negative consequences and great risks for the girl child. They are deprived of basic rights to education, good healthcare, economic opportunities and ordinary life experiences of growing up as girls.
The introduction to the photo essay noted ‘‘the personal stories told in this exhibit are separate and unique. Yet each shares elements in common with the next. Together these stories illustrate that those who have suffered the indignities of child marriage share a commonality of experience that transcends specific circumstances, cultures, countries, and continents.”
Today getting up and walking about are symbolic and significant for the life of the girl child and her right to be fully human, to be independent. Jesus empowered her to rise up and she was free to walk about. Today a girl child waking up to her right and be herself is a milestone. She will claim her identity as a person equal in God’s sight. She will claim her right to be fully human, and equal as the boy child, with full human value, dignity and self worth. She will need to feel safe and live free in the home and not be victims of incest and sexual violence. She will claim her right to walk about freely anywhere and everywhere in the day and night without being afraid of being a victim of sexual abuse and rape in and outside of the house.
Jesus showed concern for the girl’s total recovery of body, mind and spirit by asking the parents to give her something to eat! Jesus gives importance to food as a basic need on her waking up. She needs food to survive and be sustained to live. The parents are primarily responsible to look after her in the family. But she is being brought back into the human and religious community around her.
This brings us back to the role and responsibility of the community. The people crowded around the house on news of her death. The girl was already dead, what could Jesus do? With disbelief and scepticism, they broke into mocking laughter at Jesus’ words that the little girl has not died.
What is the community response and responsibility to the plight of the girl child today? Will they give her food to eat? Nowadays it is not safe for girl children and women to accept food or materials so easily, not even in a church or religious community. The story of Mabel you heard earlier is one horrid experience among many others.
But where and who are the communities and neighbours? “Where is Jairus, where are the Jairuses of today, leaders of the synagogue, fathers of the church, fathers of households… that they may see these little girls…that they may heed women’s call for justice, for life…”
The Jairuses, the jeering crowd, the neighbours, the disciples, the social and religious communities are today the common people, the civic leaders, community and religious leaders, the governments and NGOs, the Church and all the religious communities.
Where is the commitment and responsibility to the prevailing violence against girls in our world today?
Why is the girl child so important? Because you and I have been one! Because your sister, daughter, niece, neighbour’s child are one of them! Because you may be a sister, brother, mother, father, aunt, uncle, neighbour or friend of the girl child crying out for help.
Today women advocates and people committed to the plight of girl children face the same hurdle as Jesus did. Like Jesus, people ridicule them because they spend so much effort and time to highlight the plight of the suffering girl children who are no bodies in our societies and communities.
But getting up and walking about have a new dimension of life. It is a newly created power and energy that has deep significance for the girl children and women today. It is a fresh new call to the ecumenical community to be life-giving to the girl children for they belong to the Reign of God. We are called to be God’s agents to address the issue of the girl child and implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to act and support the elimination of discrimination against girls and women.
Today the girl child is in need of more than food and materials. She needs the community to hold her hand and empower her to rise up to her rightful place and live with dignity and self-respect. She needs the community to walk about with her to challenge traditions, taboos and discrimination against their birth, indeed their very existence. She needs the community to walk about with her and give her a sense of security to walk about freely in and outside of the home.
Today women, young and old, who get up and walk about call for a partnership with all the Jairuses of the family, Synagogue and religious community. The global and ecumenical community are called upon to act as agents of God’s Reign—to address the root causes of the problems faced by the girl child—the danger of female foeticide, infanticide, child labour, all forms of sexual abuse and discrimination, child marriage, child prostitution and trafficking, and so on.
I would like to end here with a poem and some images. This poem exposes the true reality of the girl child with their dream and hope for wholeness of life.
My Daughter 
I welcome you to this world, my daughter,
To unfold the mystery of life,
To change it to a better world before you go back,
To the womb of Mother Earth again!
It was not the same with me in my mother’s womb,
I had to ‘seek and hide’ my sex because of fear.
‘Female’ was a terror and disgust to them,
Though I did not know of harming my parents.
The society said my coming should be banned,
I was a ‘liability’ to my parents and to add,
I was their constant anxiety, as my mom told.
An endless burden of cares!
So it was with me when I was battered,
For more ‘dowry’, for more comforts, by your father,
I felt I was a burden, not only to my parents but
To me too. But, I broke the chains.
Quick. I took my life in my hands,
When the world was too much for me.
It drives me to death.
But I want to live.
Live and safeguard you.
I welcome you, my daughter.
Come celebrate the life of the girl child!
Get up little girl! Get up my daughter!
Get up Luisa, Aida and Mabel!
Get up Rakiya and Rohini
Get up Bijli and Takia!
Get up all named and unnamed girls!
Be whole and arise to life abundance!
Now to all women, SCM and WSCF women, let us embrace this: All sleeping women now awake! Get up and walk! Arise to life!