October 11, 2012 was the first UN International Day of the Girl. It was a worldwide commemoration of girls’ leadership, potential and capacity in recognition of challenges they face, including violence, oppression and poverty. While I perused the images of celebration, however, I was sadly reminded of other tragic, disturbing and disappointing pictures of girls.
Last June, the European Commission attempted to attract girls to study science by releasing an atrocious video called Science: It’s a Girl Thing! Three young girls wearing short skirts and stilettos strut forward on the screen, stopping to pose for an adult male scientist, who looks up from his microscope, removes his glasses and stares intently. The next 40 seconds are flashes of makeup, steam, sunglasses, bubbling water and his even gaze, interrupted with shots of the girls laughing and smiling provocatively. The video was removed quickly after overwhelming negative response to its blatantly sexist nature.
In a different image, Amanda Todd spent years trying to escape a bad decision she made to lift her shirt while on a webcam. An online predator took a photo and widely distributed that picture. The hateful bullying that ensued by youth at school culminated in her choice to hang herself last week. Her despair is exacerbated by the malicious attacks that continued after her death, made by people who wouldn’t stop hurting when there was nothing left to be harmed.
Meanwhile, pictures of Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani and advocate for girls’ education, are gripping. I wonder how someone with such youthful innocence and clarity of purpose could be deemed a threat, but the Taliban sees her this way. They shot her in the head and she is now recovering in the U.K. The Taliban deems this dark-eyed child a “spy of the West,” declaring that “Sharia says that even a child can be killed if he is propagating against Islam.”
But one of the most heart-wrenching pictures I have seen of a girl is that of a nameless Sudanese child taken by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter in 1993. The child is alone, collapsed while on her walk to a feeding camp, bent forward in pain and exhaustion, with her face in the dirt and her hands by her head. In the background, a vulture waits patiently. It appears to be only a matter of time before it will have a carcass to devour. While the picture effectively brought the famine to the eyes of the world, the photographer was criticized for not helping the girl after taking the picture. Her fate is unknown.
Regardless of these extremely varied situations, these girls are all presented as objects of ridicule, of desire, of contempt, of attack or of news. Their courage, intelligence, vulnerability or voice is lost when their attackers or recorders reduce them to an image on the screen, without heart, feelings, intellect or merit. This is deeply tragic.
Girls grow in settings around the world where their quest for dignity is thwarted by confusing messages all around them. They are told they are too outspoken, too fat, too smart, too emotional or too independent. They are told to expose themselves or cover themselves; told to be beautiful but to remain silent and submissive. Their success begins from a deficit.
The girl is the representation of humanity, and can embrace compassion, brilliance, courage, wisdom and honour. Let us celebrate her enduring potential by giving her life, respect, support, opportunity, safety and equality. And let us be careful to not limit her to an image on a screen, for any reason.
Dee-Ann Schwanke is a St. Albert resident with five daughters.