Friday, 24 June 2011 17:51

Girls, Boys Lead Different Lives Because of Government Services

If the leading cause of death for girls under 11 is AIDS and the leading cause of death for boys of the same age is road traffic accidents, what does this tell us about the way our lives are gendered?

Firstly it tells us something about how our national HIV policies are being implemented. When girls are babies they are generally more resilient than baby boys, yet this statistic reveals that somewhere between the womb and grade 5, girls are losing out. There should be equal services for both girls and boys. Is it a question of parents favouring male children’s health over girls? This is not unheard of in many developing countries. Or is it a question of the state providing gendered services?

Secondly it requires that we ask how these young girls contracted HIV if they were not born with it. As many families remain economically impoverished, many parents cannot provide girls with the capitalist comforts they have been led to believe are essential to their existence. As a consequence, a worrying social pattern known as “transactional sex” has emerged. Older men provide girls with phones, transport and clothing in return for sex. Older men are more likely to have had more than one partner, and the age difference makes it difficult for young girls to negotiate condom use. As a result, girls are at high risk of exposure to HIV. This is happening across cultural groups around the country, and perhaps also has something to do with high rates of teenage pregnancy. In addition, traditional practices such as ukuthwala also expose young girls to HIV for the same reasons.

Third, it requires that we ask questions about the different lives that girls and boys lead. Road traffic is not gendered, and if a girl is hit by a car she is equally likely to die. But girls are not being hit by cars as often. This tells us something about the fact that boys are outside more than girls, perhaps playing more than girls. We already know that the HIV has a female face in SA, and that the carers are generally women. Perhaps a statistic like this tells us that girls are part of this care economy, or are at least filling the gaps while their mothers and aunts are taking care of other relatives.

I went to a talk last week by Lisa Vetten of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre and Janine Hicks of the Commission for Gender Equality. The question was whether gender was a local government election issue and the response was overwhelmingly that it was not, had not ever been, and unless we began to question government in the interim between elections it would never be. The way services are delivered to local communities affects the way that girl and boy children are able to live.

All girls and boys deserve equal access to basic services. Unfortunately when there is no electricity or potable water in a community, women are the ones who collect firewood and girl children are their able assistants in boiling water for cooking and drinking. Better sanitation for communities means that girl children will not have to skip school because they have nowhere to dispose of their sanitary pads or tampons, or because they don’t have access to them at all. Functioning enclosed toilets mean that girl children, as well as boy children, will be safer when using shared toilets.

Another often quoted statistic is that in SA girls have a higher chance of being raped than of learning to read. These rapes are often committed by someone the girl knows, and most often by someone in her family. That person is probably also abusing her mother, sister or aunt. At the same talk last week, Hicks and Vetten described how housing affects this. Houses are built with only one door, so if an attacker locks that door the person being abused cannot leave. In addition, RDP housing policy only allows you to own an RDP house once. Consequently many women stay in abusive relationships because if they leave their abuser in their home, they will probably never get access to another one. Systemically coercing women to stay in abusive relationships puts them and their children at risk of abuse.

We must begin to recognise that the delivery of services is engendered on a practical level, even when it appears neutral on a policy level. Unless we demand gendered manifestos from parties, these services will remain skewed and we will continue to live a democracy that favours men over women.


Author: Jennifer Thorpe

Originally published on: Thought Leader

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