By Jamil Chade
Dear young girl,
While your story was the subject of a dramatic debate in Brazil, I tell you that in a room here at the headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, men in suits – and a few women – were negotiating the text of a resolution on your destiny. Yours, your sisters’, cousins’, and millions of girls who, like you, want to dream. There, despite the good intentions of several delegations, what was at stake was something deeper: the autonomy of your body. Do you have the right to sex education or not? Should abortion be criminalised or not? To whom, in short, does your body belong? A word-for-word negotiation in a text of a draft resolution. As if the life of each one of you could be bargained with. Listening to that intense debate, a question crossed my mind: where was the room where the autonomy of the male body is under negotiation? Who are the authors of the projects that aim to limit certain sexual rights for men? Obviously, that room does not exist, and that negotiation is out of the question. Who would dare, right? But I’m not writing to you to magnify your trauma, much less make any recommendations. I have a son your age and I can’t help but note how, even today, his life is spared all your suffering. Simply because he was born a man.
I came here, therefore, only to note our failure, to shout alongside you and, in an embarrassed way, to apologise. As a man, it is extremely frustrating to admit that my generation has not yet understood the meaning of the word “equality”. In Brazil, here at the UN and in dozens of countries around the world, your body is a political act. Your belly yields votes to charlatans. Your desire is criminalised. Your destiny does not depend only on your plans and fears. Your life-giving blood is a cause for embarrassment. You are, deep down, another layer of the history of structural oppression against girls and women that is intertwined with the history of humanity itself.
Only a few decades ago, even in rich countries, a woman would need a prescription to buy a pregnancy test. In Australia until the 1980s, you could only enter courts in a skirt. In several European countries, a passport was only granted to a woman with the consent of her husband or brother. In others, the credit card only went to the woman with the signature of a man at her side. Here in Switzerland, women were only allowed to vote in the 70s. Yes, the 70s of the 20th century. Do you know what the argument of groups opposed to voting rights for women was? Their political participation would undermine your feminine character, as well as threaten the raising of your children.
And do you know what the groups fighting against women’s suffrage were called? Pro-Family. I think I’ve heard that term somewhere in the tropics in recent years. In the 21st century, men have careers. Women have jobs. According to the World Economic Forum, at the current rate of advancement in wage conditions between men and women, income equivalence will be reached in 209 years. In other words, your granddaughters’ granddaughters might be able to dream. Are we ready to accept that? The “no” that Justice initially issued in your case, therefore, is part of a perennial denial towards girls and women.
At only eleven years old, you discovered in the most perverse way the struggle a girl faces to exist. A struggle in a society that starts from an early age to determine what you should be, what you cannot be, where you should be, what you can play with, what words to use. I like it when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that knowing how to cook is not something that comes pre-installed in the vagina. A struggle in the face of a power established by us men, arrogant enough to judge you all with different rules to those used for our male children.
In the last 30 years, real advances have been made in law in some parts of the world. But the transformation that such changes have brought about has now generated a counter-reform, violent, hate-filled, and powerful. Even though unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal death in the world and that almost half of all procedures – because they are done clandestinely – threaten the life of the mother, the US Supreme Court has decided to go in a direction contrary to the expansion of rights. I can only conclude that the death of a woman does not carry the same weight as that of a man. If the criminalisation of women is the answer, we men will have to have the audacity then to propose, “lock me up together”. The struggle for your emancipation needs to be the struggle of a society. But any debate passes first and foremost through the autonomy of your body. The starting point of all struggles.
There is nothing I can tell you that will reduce your pain. But it is urgent that we can change the way we raise a new generation so that they find the violence you are suffering inconceivable. As a father of two boys, I try to bring subversion against this oppression into our daily breakfast talks, into our conversations. We must create a deep rupture and that involves each of our families. But we cannot wait until the children of today take over. Your immediate suffering is intolerable. The torture you have been subjected to dehumanises an entire society.
With an enormous feeling of revolt and solidarity, I leave here a message of resistance. Your pain is our pain. Your struggle is our struggle.