12 Things To Know About Child Marriage

Chucosqueros school
Fifth Grade Class in Chuchoquesera, Peru. These girls would likely end their formal education with fifth grade, with marriage to follow.

Originally published on World Moms Blog.

My daughter, who recently turned 11, will be graduating from fifth grade in a few weeks.  After the summer break, she will continue on to middle school.  But for 34 million girls in our world today, the completion of primary school likely marked the end of formal education.  It may even have meant that it was time for her to be married.

When I visited the classroom in the Peruvian highlands that is pictured above, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community.  He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, but this is fifth grade.  In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away.  Most of the girls won’t go.  It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go.  Besides, most of them will be married soon.”

Worldwide, more than 700 million women  alive today were married as children. More than 1 in 3 – or some 250 million – were married before the age of 15.  Every year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That averages out to about 28 girls a minute.

Here are a few basic facts that everyone needs to know about child marriage.  

1. Child marriage, also called “child, early and forced marriage”, is a formal marriage or informal union before the age 18. Child marriage also affect boys, but the number of girls who enter into child marriage is disproportionately higher.

2. Child marriage occurs in many countries throughout the world and is practiced by members of many religions.   UNICEF reports that rates of child marriage are highest in South Asia, where nearly half of all girls marry before age 18; about one in six were married or in union before age 15. This is followed by West and Central Africa, then Eastern and Southern Africa, where 42 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married in childhood.

3. Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality.  Child marriage is a harmful traditional practice in which a girl child is valued less than a boy by her family and community. Child marriage is also happens because of patriarchal values, including the desire to control female sexuality and reproduction.  According to UNICEF,

Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature and continuous child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce their economic burden. 

4. Girls from poor families are almost twice as likely to marry young as girls from families with more economic security. Not only are girls from poor families more likely to become child brides, but they’re also more likely to remain poor. Yet, in the context of poverty, families may be acting in what they believe is the best interest of their child by marrying their daughter off at a young age.

5. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school. Conversely, girls who stay in school are less likely to marry and have children early and more likely to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.   Educating adolescent girls has been a critical factor in increasing the age of marriage in a number of developing countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.

6. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence.  The International Center for Research on Women reports that child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.

7. Child marriage results in girls having babies before they are physically or emotionally ready, often with serious health consequences.  According to the World Health Organization, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the second highest cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 around the world.  Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. The infants of young teenage girls are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life. And in developing countries, 90% of adolescent pregnancies  are among married girls

8. Girls who marry before 18 often face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience.

9.  Child marriage rates increase in the context of conflict and natural disasters. Save The Children has documented that the proportion of registered marriages where the bride was under 18 in the Syrian refugee community in Jordan rose from 12% in 2011 (roughly the same as the figure in pre-war Syria) more than doubled to 25% by 2013.6 The number of Syrian boys registered as married in 2011 and 2012 in Jordan is far lower, suggesting that girls are being married off to older men. Floods increased child marriage in Bangladesh and there is concern that the 2015 earthquakes have increased child marriage in Nepal.

10.  Despite laws against it, the practice of child marriage remains widespread. Child marriage is technically illegal in many countries that have changed their laws to comply with the international standard of 18 as the age of marriage for both boys and girls.  Social norms can be more challenging to change.  In Ethiopia, for example, the legal age of marriage is 18, but nearly one in five girls are married before they turn 15.

11. The United Nations’  Sustainable Development Goals include a greater commitment to ending child marriage. Goal 5 committed to “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. Part of that commitment was a pledge to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriages”.

12. Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at multiple levels. Evidenced collected by the ICRW shows that it requires: 1)  Empowering girls with information, skills and support networks; 2)  Educating and mobilizing parents and community members; 3) Enhancing the accessibility and quality of formal schooling for girls; 4) Offering economic support and incentives for girls and their families; and 5) Fostering an enabling legal and policy framework.

For more information, resources, and ways to take action, see:

UNICEF

International Center for Research on Women

Girls Not Brides

Too Young To Wed

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International Women’s Day 2016

InternationalWomensDay-landscape

Originally published on World Moms Blog

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Source: Metro

Today – Tuesday, March 8 – people all over the world will be celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD).  IWD events across the globe include marches, rallies, sporting events, art expositions, and festivals with live musical and dance performances. IWD is a national holiday in more than two dozen countries; in some countries, only the women get the day off from work.  If you use Google, you might even notice that the Google Doodle honors the occasion.

But what is International Women’s Day really all about? 

The idea for a collective global day  that celebrates women’s solidarity emerged in the early 20th century and was closely linked to women’s involvement in the labor, voting rights and peace movements in North America and Europe.  March 8 has been the global date for IWD since 1913.   The United Nations officially proclaimed March 8 as International Women’s Day during 1975, the UN’s International Women’s Year.  According to UN Women, 

Increasingly, International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is gender parity. The United Nations observance on March 8 is focused on building momentum for the global roadmap for implementation by 2030 of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially goal number five -Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls- and number 4 –Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. t their implementation by 2030.

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The UN’s IWD theme  “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” will also focus on new commitments under UN Women’s Step It Up initiative, which asks governments to make national commitments that will close the gender equality gap – from laws and policies to national action plans and adequate investment. So far, 91 governments have made specific national commitments. You can read them here.

Women and girls make up more than half the world’s population and they are often more deeply impacted than men and boys by poverty, climate change, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and global economic crises. Their contributions and leadership are central to finding solutions to these global problems. Yet women lag far behind their male counterparts in many areas of economic engagement.  

In 2014, the World Economic Forum predicted that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. But only one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn’t close entirely until 2133.

For IWD 2016, a group of international corporations have launched the Pledging For Parity! campaign.   According to the website www.internationalwomensday.com:

Everyone – men and women – can pledge to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity more quickly – whether to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, call for gender-balanced leadership, respect and value difference, develop more inclusive and flexible cultures or root out workplace bias. Each of us can be a leader within our own spheres of influence and commit to take pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity.

Meet Sophie Walker: A World Mom Who is Taking Action on Gender Parity

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The Women’s Equality Party launch their first policy document. Leader Sophie Walker addresses attendees.  Photo credit Fiona Hanson 2015©.

Sophie Walker was working as a journalist and a diversity campaigner when, last March, a friend asked if she would be interested in helping to set up a new political party. In the run-up to Britain’s 2015 General Election, many voters were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of inclusion and understanding from the other political parties when it came to equal rights and opportunities for women. A group of them came together, spread the word to more, who spread the word across the country – and The Women’s Equality Party was born. Sophie was elected as leader by the new party’s steering committee in July and the party now has 70 local branches across England, Wales and Scotland, and 45,000 members and registered supporters. The Women’s Equality Party (WE) is a non-partisan political party that welcomes members from right across the political spectrum to campaign for equal representation, equal pay, an end to violence against women, equal education, equal parenting and equal representation in the media. Sophie is now standing as WE’s candidate for London Mayor.

“I want to make London the first gender-equal city in the world, where the 4 million women who live here can do the jobs they want to do and walk the streets in safety. London needs a Mayor with some imagination!” – Sophie Walker

Ways That You Can Take Action on International Women’s Day 2016

  • Join the conversation for International Women’s Day, #IWD2016! Main hashtags: #IWD2016 (#DíadelaMujer, #Journéedelafemme); #Planet5050;  (And check out the automatic emoji on Twitter when tweeting with the hashtag #IWD2016!)
  • Change your Facebook and Twitter cover image with the banners available from UN Women in English, Spanish and French (under “General”) here.
  • Bring your IWD event to a global audience. If you organize or participate in a local International Women’s Day event, share your images and messages on the UN Women  Facebook Event page.
  • Join the campaign and make a #PledgeforParity.
  • Read ONE’s new report Poverty Is Sexist and sign the letter  calling for global gender equality.
  • Check out UN Women’s multimedia resources to learn more.  See the Interactive Timeline: Women’s Footprint in History  as well as the Photo Essay: A day in the life of women.

 

Morocco: Human Rights Violations Under Article 475

Zohra Filali shows a picture of her daughter, Amina Filali, at their family house near Larache, northern Morocco. Amina Filali committed suicide after being forced to marry the man who raped her. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Zohra Filali shows a picture of her daughter, Amina Filali. Amina Filali committed suicide after being forced to marry the man who raped her.
(AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

Originally published on The Advocates Post

In Morocco, a 15 year old girl experienced constant harassment and threats from a 35 year old man in her town.  He waited for her each day outside of her school and on several occasions told her, “I will force you to marry me.”  One day, he abducted and raped her at knifepoint.  The victim made a complaint to the gendarmes, who arrested the man.  In his statement to the police, the rapist admitted his crime, declaring that he did it “because it was the only way I would be able to marry her.”  In order to avoid scandal, the victim dropped out of school and married him.  “I am raped now every day,” she told members of the local association that works with women survivors of domestic violence.

This tragic story is one of many included in a joint submission The Advocates for Human Rights and our Moroccan partner Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA) made recently to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child.  The submission  draws attention to the serious human rights violations resulting from the application of Article 475 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which  provides that whoever “abducts or deceives” a minor, without using violence, threat or fraud, can escape prosecution and imprisonment if (i) the abductor marries the victim, and (ii) those persons who have a right to request annulment of the marriage do not file a complaint.[1]

Organizations and news reports from Morocco indicate that Article 475 has been applied in cases of sexual abuse of minors in order to preserve the “honor” of the victim and her family.  Notably, this issue has received widespread coverage following the 2012 suicide of Amina Filali, a sixteen year-old girl who killed herself after being forced to marry a man – ten years older than her – who had raped her.[2] Additional news reports confirm that the use of Article 475 continues.[3]  Further, associations working at the local level in Morocco report that girls married under Article 475 continue to suffer rape and domestic violence after the marriage.

Information from our Moroccan partners illustrates the extent of the problems with the application of Article 475. One local association that works with women reported that, of 11 cases involving rape of a minor that they handled in 2013, Article 475 was raised in 6 cases; the age of the victims ranged from 14-17, while the age of the rapists ranged from 23-28.[4]  In one case, a 14 year old girl was raped by her 28 year old cousin, and she became pregnant as a result.  She sought help from the association to file a criminal complaint, and there were several court hearings.  DNA testing established that the accused was the rapist.  Under Article 475, the two families agreed on a temporary marriage between the rapist and the victim to avoid shame, with a predetermined divorce date after one month of marriage.[5]

Associations working at the local level in Morocco report that the young victims experience tremendous pressure to abandon criminal prosecution and agree to the application of Article 475  from law enforcement, justice system personnel, as well as the families of the perpetrators. Even their own families pressure them to agree to marriage under Article 475 in order to avoid shame. Because all sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal under the Moroccan Penal Code,[6] victims also fear prosecution and imprisonment under Penal Code Article 490.[7] In fact, one Moroccan association reported several cases of rape victims who filed complaints to initiate criminal prosecution but were prosecuted themselves under Article 490.[8]

In one instance, a 15 year old girl was raped by a 25 year old man.  She became pregnant as a result of the rape, which is considered proof of illicit sexual relations.  She did not want to file a criminal complaint because she feared prosecution under Article 490, so she fled her home and sought shelter through a local Moroccan association.  The rapist’s family made threats against the victim’s mother, however, and she was pressured to not file a criminal complaint and to marry the rapist under Article 475 instead.[9]

Article 475 must be understood in the context of early marriage in Morocco.  While the legal age of marriage for both men and women is now 18 in Morocco,[10]the Family Code allows the marriage of minors when “justified” and after substantial control by the Family Affairs judge.[11]Both the number of petitions for authorization to marry minors and the approval rate are high and increasing.  In 2007, 10.03% of marriages were of minors, and 86.8% of the 33,596 petitions were authorized.[12]  In 2011, the rate had risen to 11.99% of all marriages and 89.56% of 46,927 petitions for authorization to marry a minor were granted.  33.58% of petitions in 2011 were for minors ages 14-16[13].  The overwhelming majority of the minor spouses, 99.31%, were girls.[14] The Family Code provides no threshold minimum age below which authorization to marry may never be granted.  Local NGOs report marriages of girls as young as thirteen, fourteen and fifteen.[15]

In practice, judges often issue authorizations based on their own cursory visual examination of the minor girl’s physical appearance and determination that she is capable of assuming “marital responsibilities,” rather than resorting to the required expertise.[16]  Reasons advanced by judges for authorizing underage marriage include saving family honor, avoiding scandal, protecting the girl’s chastity and preventing her from debauchery.  Some even cite marriage as a solution to poverty.  At times judges do not even substantiate their decisions in writing.  Corruption among public actors and the ease by which medical certificates attesting to the minor girl’s “maturity” can be obtained are also factors allowing circumvention of the law.[17]

In spite of the reality of early and forced marriage for young Moroccan girls, the Moroccan Government made statements in recent United Nations submissions that Article 475 does not apply to, and has not been applied in, cases of sexual abuse of minors.  For example, in response to the most recent concluding observations of the Committee Against Torture, the Moroccan Government stated that Article 475 does not apply in cases of sexual abuse and that there is no statutory text in Morocco that exempts the “perpetrator of child rape from punishment when he makes the child concerned his wife, because anyone who commits rape is punished in all instances, even when he marries the victim of rape.”[19]  The Moroccan Government further stated that Article 475 “is not applicable to rape but rather to the crime of the abduction of a minor who leaves the parental home to be with someone and agrees to marry him.”[20]

In other words, in the Moroccan Government’s view and in contrast to the many reports originating from Morocco, Article 475 is intended to address situations involving marriage without the consent of the family where the prosecution for abduction of a minor can be dropped if the victim’s family withdraws the complaint to “maintain good family relations and to protect the make-up of the family if arresting the husband could lead his minor wife to lose any chance of a normal life.”[21]

On January 22, 2014, Morocco’s Parliament voted to abolish paragraph 2 of Art. 475.  While this is a positive step, and certainly a victory to be celebrated, the bill that was approved unanimously this week only abrogates the exoneration through marriage provision.   It does not change the rest of Art. 475 which provides that a man convicted of statutory rape in Morocco is still only subject to a few years in prison and a small fine.   It does nothing to impact the larger problems faced by minor girls who experience sexual abuse or early marriage in Morocco.

The Moroccan government must go further to protect the rights of women and girls.   Given the factual situation on the ground in Morocco and the clear violations of Morocco’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Moroccan government must:

  • Amend Morocco’s Penal Code and Penal Procedure Code to facilitate procedures for bringing sexual abuse and rape of minors cases, including eliminating discriminatory legal provisions that require proof of actual physical injury and place heavy burdens of proof solely on the victim.
  • Amend Morocco’s Penal Code to abolish criminal prosecutions under Article 490 for “illicit sexual relations.”
  • Develop and implement a plan for educating the judiciary and public that criminal proceedings against rapists will not be terminated if they marry their victims and that Article 475 is not to be applied in cases of sexual abuse and rape of minors.
  • Penalize all acts to encourage, pressure, or threaten minors to marry, whether by public or private actors.
  • Amend Morocco’s Family Code to establish clear and objective criteria under which judicial authorizations for the marriage of minors may be granted in only exceptional cases, and in all events establish a threshold minimum age under which authorization to marry may never be granted.

Related post:  Amina Filali and Violence Against Women in Morocco


[1]Dahir n° 1-59-413 du 28 joumada II 1382 (26 novembre 1962) portant approbation du texte du code pénal, as amended, (« Penal Code »), Art. 475: 1) Quiconque, sans violences, menaces ou fraudes, enlève ou détourne, ou tente d’enlever ou de détourner, un mineur de moins de dix-huit ans (Article modifié par l’article premier de la loi n° 24-03 modifiant et complétant le code pénal, précitée), est puni de l’emprisonnement d’un à cinq ans et d’une amende de 200 (cf. supra note correspondant à l’article 111)  à 500 dirhams. 2) Lorsqu’une mineure nubile ainsi enlevée ou détournée a épousé son ravisseur, celui-ci ne peut être poursuivi que sur la plainte des personnes ayant qualité pour demander l’annulation du mariage et ne peut être condamné qu’après que cette annulation du mariage a été prononcée.

available at http://adala.justice.gov.ma/FR/Legislation/TextesJuridiques.aspx.

[3]See, e.g.,http://www.illionweb.com/larticle-475-tue-toujours/, http://www.illionweb.com/bouchra-victime-gang/, and http://www.yabiladi.com/articles/details/21035/tetouan-fille-suicide-apres-avoir.html.  In addition, one association working with MRA reported that their region of Morocco alone, three girls married under Art. 475 had recently tried to kill themselves. Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).

[4]Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).  In the same Written Communications, another association from a different region reported that Article 475 was raised in 3 of 5 rape cases that they handled where the victim was a minor.  A third association reported their experience that in 6 cases where Article 475 was raised since 2011, the average age difference between the victim and the rapist was 10 years (with victims ranging in age from 14-17 and rapists from 23-28). Id.

[5]Id.

[6]Dahir n° 1-59-413 du 28 joumada II 1382 (26 novembre 1962) portant approbation du texte du code pénal, as amended, (« Penal Code »)art. 490.

[7]Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).

[8]Id.

[9]Id.

[10] Dahir n° 1-04-22 du 12 hija 1424 (3 février 2004) portant promulgation de la loi n° 70-03 portant Code de la Famille («Family Code ») art. 19.

[11] The authorization is not subject to appeal. Id. art. 20.  Article 21 also requires the legal tutor’s (guardian’s) consent.Id. art. 21.

[13]Id.  Note that these numbers are consistent with information from the local level.  One local association that works with MRA reported that from January to November 2013, the First Instance Court in Khemisset granted 325 of 442 petitions for authorization to marry minors.  Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).

[15]Ligue démocratique de défense des droits des femmes (LDDF), Droits des femmes et code de la famille après 4 ans d’application(2007).

[16]Interviews with Local Morocco NGOs, (May 2012 – December 2013).

[17]Abdellah Ounnir, Les justiciables dans le circuit judiciaire relatif au contentieux de la famille, inLe Code de la famille: Perceptions et pratique judiciaire, pp. 89-139 (Morocco: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2007);Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc(ADFM), Implementation of the CEDAW Convention: Non-Governmental Organisations’ Shadow Report to the Third and the Fourth Periodic Report of the Moroccan Government(Nov. 2007).

[18]In January 2013, the Justice Minister made a statement to the effect that he would not oppose proposed modifications to 475. A bill (sponsored by MPs) to modify and complete article 475 was adopted by the Council of the 2nd Chamber of Parliament and  transferred to the relevant Committee on legislation within that Chamber for review on January 29, 2013.  This bill would increase the penalties, eliminate the 2nd paragraph of 475, and reinforces the link between 475 and the later sexual abuse of minors articles in the Penal Code.  A second bill (sponsored by MPs) presented in the 1st Chamber would eliminate the 2nd paragraph of 475 (among other modifications to the articles on sexual abuse), but the version adopted by the legislation committee had eliminated these reforms.  Another bill (sponsored by MPs) for a VAW law in 1st chamber that would cancel 475 among its 35 articles was transferred for review to the legislation committee in February 2013.  The current status of these three bills is unknown and it is unclear what subsequent steps if any have been taken on these three bills.  A proposed VAW bill submitted by the Family Minister to the Government Council (and tabled) did not contain any modifications to Article 475. See http://www.medias24.com/POLITIQUE/5975-Benkirane-desavoue-Bassima-Hakkaoui.html.  Most recently, on January 8, 2014, the Committee on Justice, Legislation and Human Rights in on of the Parliament’s chambers voted to abolish paragraph 2 of Art. 475.  See http://www.aujourdhui.ma/maroc-actualite/societe/viol-des-mineures-au-maroc-une-loi-debattue-au-parlement-107202.html www.yabiladi.com%2Farticles%2Fdetails%2F22289%2Fviols-mineures-deputes-annulent-l-alinea.html&h=1AQFFOSTM

[19]U.N. Committee Against Torture, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention, Information Received From the Government of Morocco in Response to the Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture, para. 111, CAT/C/MAR/CO/4/Add.1(9 September 2013).

[20]Idpara. 112.

[21]U.N. Committee Against Torture, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention, Information Received From the Government of Morocco in Response to the Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture, para. 112, CAT/C/MAR/CO/4/Add.1(9 September 2013).

Rainbow Looming Our Way To Gender Equality

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There are little plastic rubber bands all over our house.  On my way upstairs this morning, I noticed them strewn on the stair treads like colorful flower petals after a spring storm.  That’s because my 11 year-old son spent more than an hour yesterday at the top of the stairs, “where the light is good”, perfecting his starburst bracelet on the Rainbow Loom.   Technically, it’s his 8 year-old sister’s, but his Rainbow Loom will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon Prime.  He used some of his Christmas money to buy one for himself.

Anyone with kids in elementary or middle school will understand what I’m talking about, but this is something worth talking about even if you don’t have kids.   The Rainbow Loom has been popular for months. What is striking for me as a parent, however, is that this is a toy that is equally popular with both boys and girls.  Of the more than $3 million in sales since August, almost half of the Rainbow Looms reportedly were purchased for boys.

I first noticed the Rainbow Loom’s gender-neutral popularity last month at a PeeWee hockey tournament.  Since the tournament was out-of-town, the team and their families were all staying at the same hotel.  I noticed that all of the younger siblings – especially the boys – were prodigious Rainbow Loomers.   A group of younger brothers, all 9 and 10, were Rainbow Looming by the pool.  Later that night, they were Rainbow Looming at the rink before the game.

“Do the guys on your team like to Rainbow Loom, too?”  I asked my son.  He’s one of the youngest on his PeeWee team; most of the boys are already 12.

“Sure,” he said.  “But we didn’t have much time for it this weekend. You know, because we had to focus on hockey.”

Before my oldest son was born 14 years ago, I thought I could raise my kids in a gender-neutral way.  I had a wide range of toys on hand for him to choose from, including a baby doll.  But he and his younger brother showed no interest at all in playing with dolls or stuffed animals or Barbies or anything like that. When I caught them drop-kicking the doll, I finally gave it away to a more loving home.   By the time our daughter was born, we had no toys left that could be characterized as stereotypically female.   That is, until the day that I found her cradling a Darth Vader action figure.  She was kneeling next to a bowling pin that she had put to bed with a Kleenex for a blanket.   The premise of my nurture v. nature theory having been blown out of the water, I took her to Target and let her pick out a baby doll.  At eight, she is still taking excellent care of her “family”.

The bigger lesson for me was that kids will choose to play with what is interesting to them.   My kids inherited a substantial Hotwheels collection from my brother, but the boys never played with them much.   My daughter has always enjoyed playing with the cars, although she often plays with them differently.   Sometimes I’ll find them all lined up by color, for example.  Instead of making car noises like “Vroom! Vroom!”, the conversations I’ve overheard coming out her room are about relationships.  “Oh, Baby car!  Are you lonely? Do you want to park by Mommy car?”

Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display.   Sure, my daughter chooses the stereotypical feminine toy most of the time.But the point is that she should be able to play with any toy and in any way that she wants to, regardless of what our society traditionally dictates as the appropriate gender-based toys.  And that goes for her brothers, too.

This holiday season, my daughter and I talked a lot about the gender-based marketing of toys.  It’s especially noticeable in the toy section – some stores even have aisles blatantly identified with pink for girls and blue for boys.   On the same toy aisle where she picked out her first baby doll, we noticed a ultra-pink display for “Lego Friends”.  My daughter, unimpressed at this new line of Legos marketed to girls, observed that,  “I don’t get it. It seems like they should just sell all the Legos in the same aisle.”

Which brings me back to the Rainbow Loom, a toy that has grown tremendously popular without much marketing at all. Rainbow Loom is popular because of word of mouth and YouTube.  Kids decided it is cool and fun to Rainbow Loom, and they shared that information (along with the colorful, plastic bracelets) with each other.

I witnessed something similar last summer when my son and the other boys at camp were obsessed with fingerweaving.  I have a mental picture of a group of them, all 11 and 12 years old, sitting around and fingerweaving during their free time.  In the middle of the circle was a huge mound – yards and yards and yards – of their collective fingerweaving.  Every once in a while, someone would call out, “I need more yarn!” and someone else would make a run for the craft room.  Fingerweaving was cool and fun in their social context and everyone, regardless of sex, was doing it.

I see the same phenomenon with the Rainbow Loom.  When tween boys are making jewelry at the hockey rink, you know it is not a popularity bogged down by gender-stereotypes.

“Why do you like to make things on your Rainbow Loom?”  I asked my daughter.   “Because it is creative and fun!” she replied.

When I asked my son the same question, he replied,  “Because it’s fun.  And creative.”

That pretty much says it all.   In a gender-biased world, they found a gender-neutral toy that they both love for the same reasons.   So I ordered them each a new package of 1800 colorful little rubber bands.  I won’t even mind picking them up off the floor.

The Rainbow Loom – and the kids that have made it wildly popular – give me hope.  Hope that this generation will keep our society moving, slowly but surely,  towards gender equality.

Why American Moms are Cheering for Licia Ronzulli

photo source: Reuters

Photos of European Parliament Member Licia Ronzulli with her daughter keep popping up on my Facebook news feed and Pintrest.  My friends are mostly moms, so I speculate that they had an emotional reaction when they first saw the photo of MEP Ronszulli with her baby.  I know that I did.  I cheered and teared up a little, almost simultaneously.   Then I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”

The photo of Ms. Ronzulli at work with her baby is not a new – it was taken in September 2010.   While this photo caused a splash in Europe in 2010, it took  a while for it to catch on here.  That’s about right – as a country, the US is generally well behind Europe in terms of policies that support mothers.

Although she doesn’t bring her daughter to the European Parliament regularly, there are other photos of Ms. Ronzulli and the  now-toddler  Vittoria.  During a vote on the Eurozone debt crisis on February 15, 2012, reporters snapped several photos of Vittoria with her mom at the European Parliament.

Source:  Reuters

The media coverage I have seen has focused on the cutesy (“awwwwwww”) or “hilarious” aspects of the photos.  That’s too bad. I think the media missed the opportunity to talk about WHY American moms like me are cheering for Ms. Ronzulli.

Here are a few reasons:

1)  Ms. Ronzulli’s employer, the European Parliament, has rules that allow women to take their baby with them to work.  Most American women do not have that option.
2)  The photos perfectly symbolize the work-family balance that all of us working moms struggle with every day.   The fact that, according to media reports, the photo of Ms. Ronzulli with her infant was taken during a vote on proposals to improve women’s employment rights makes it all the more poignant.
3)  Ms. Ronzulli is showing the world that childbirth does not automatically flip the offswitch on our female brains.  Women continue to be productive  employees even after they become mothers.  The Daily Mail, which ran the February 2012 photo in an article titled “Does my vote count, mummy?”,  describes the 36-year old Ronzulli as seeming “in complete control in spite of having her baby on her lap throughout.”  Why is this such a surprise?  I know that I, for one, have become better at multitasking and more efficient at doing my work since I had my first child.
4) In the 2010 photo, it appears that Ms. Ronzulli is choosing to keep her 7 week old infant with her as much as possible.  In my experience, that’s important for babies who are still so little.  Yet 6 weeks is the typical maternity leave in the U.S.  That doesn’t mean that it is paid leave, however. The U.S. is also one of only a handful of countries with no national law mandating paid time off for new parents.
5) Ms. Ronzulli was entitled to a parenting leave, but chose to take only 1 month of it.  She makes the point that it is about personal choice.  In 2010, she told The Guardian “It’s a very personal choice. A woman should be free to choose to come back after 48 hours. But if she wants to stay at home for six months, or a year, we should create the conditions to make that possible,” she said.   Amen, sister!
6) She looks GOOD!  I know I never looked that good 7 weeks after labor and delivery, but many of my friends very quickly looked like their pre-baby selves again.   I certainly didn’t look my best when I was the sleep-deprived parent of a toddler, but the world didn’t end.  Moms like a little reminder now and then that a having a baby doesn’t slam the door on our ability to look and feel good.  Sometimes it sure feels like that, but really it’s just a temporary setback.
7) Ms. Ronzulli probably didn’t have to nurse baby Vittoria sitting on a toilet in the ladies room.  That’s something I had to do at some point or other with all three of my babies here in America.

So thank you, Licia Ronzulli, for giving us American moms something to cheer for today and a reminder of what we need to continue to work towards tomorrow!

European Parliament, October 2012
Voting at the European Parliament, October 2012
UPDATE 11/20/2013:  A Mighty Girl does a fabulous photo montage of three years of Vittoria at the European Parliament
3 years of Vittoria

Raising Boys Not To Be Total Jerks

At some level, I’ve known since before my oldest son was born that this moment would come.  But when it did, it took me utterly and completely off guard.  I was driving a car full of boys home from a soccer tournament last week when my 9-year-old son piped up from the back,

“Hey mom! I’ve got a funny joke.  I’ll ask you a question and you say, ‘Ketchup and rubber buns'”.  “I’ve heard this one,” chuckled my 12-year-old son.  Snickers all around from the soccer players.  

Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know what was coming next.

“What did you have for breakfast?”  “Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns.”

“No! Mom!  Just say ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did  you have for breakfast?” “Ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did you have for lunch?”  “What did you have for dinner?”  Etc. etc.  And then we get to the punchline:

“What do you do when you see a hot chick? You catch up and rub her buns!”     Peals of laughter from the boys.

To my very great credit, I did not run the station wagon off the road and into the ditch.  I kept driving – silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead.  It was a perfect autumn day.  The sky was brilliant blue and the afternoon sun was catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway.   It was a beautiful, perfect day but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed.  I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say.

Every once in a while, though, it is helpful to have gone to law school.  “I don’t think that joke is funny.  You know, if you actually ran after a woman and touched her in an offensive way like that, it would be called “assault and battery”. It is a crime.  You could be arrested.”

“You could be arrested for THAT?”  “Yes.  Plus, the woman could also sue you.”

Silence descends.

“Also, I’ve actually had that happen to me. How do you think it feels to have a stranger grab your butt?”

“WHAT? That actually happened to YOU?”

“Sure. More than once. Usually at parties.”

“That’s kind of  making me feel sick,” said the 12-year-old.

More silence.

From the 9-year-old:  “I remember you saying that you didn’t like running past construction sites because the construction workers whistled and yelled things at you.”

I didn’t remember telling them that, but it’s true.  When I was a teenager, I used to go way off my normal running routes just to avoid running past a construction site.  Good, they were listening.

“So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?”        “Stop, Mom! We get it, ok?”

Teachable moment: ended.  I decided just to leave it there  – for now.  These are intelligent boys, good kids who love and respect their mom and their sister, their grandmothers, their female friends and teachers.   But they, like other young Americans, are deeply impacted by the culture that they live in. Children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images every day.  They are powerfully influenced by their peers (I know they didn’t hear THAT joke at home).   How can that not impact the way that they view girls and women?  And isn’t it only going to get worse as they move through middle and high school?

The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me.  I need to do more to raise these boys to recognize the problem and, hopefully one day, to speak up when they hear someone tell a sexist joke.    Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there – research, organizations, websites.   The Advocates for Human Rights has developed a Challenge the Media workshop and resource list.   And I know that other parents have successfully managed to raise their sons not to be total jerks, but to be men who respect and treat women as equals.

I’ll report back periodically on what I have found.  In the meantime, I would welcome hearing about what others have learned.    But first, I’ve got a date with my sons.  We are going to see Miss Representation.

We've still got a long way to go, but we've taken the first step.