by Paulina French

Sometimes there are news reports that you read that really disturb you. They disturb you because you cannot begin to understand why a fellow human being would act in the most abominable way. Particularly when it involves children.

As a mother, all I want is for my children to be free; for them to be able to be themselves. How can this be when the world is filled with attitudes, practices and even cultures that seem to enslave girl children and women?

Eric Aneva is a sex worker known in Malawi as “hyena”. According to a BBC report he is also HIV positive.

In some of Malawi’s remote southern regions it is traditional for girls to be forced to have sex with a man after their first menstruation as part of a “cleansing practice”.

Firstly, I acknowledge that this is a cultural practice. However, the amount of harm done, both physically and psychologically, is immeasurable. There are those who fight tirelessly for children’s rights all over the world – in particular girl children. Yet, Eric is hired by others to carry out these practices.

Feminism has often been seen as being a little suspect in some Catholic circles because it looks at changing roles in families and is linked to sexual liberation. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis clearly reaffirms how the Church is against all forms of abuse against women. He writes “we must see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”

I look at my two daughters and I wonder how I would react if I lived in a place and a community where I had no say in what they are subjected to, both culturally and spiritually. I know that my heart aches for the Malawian girls who were the victims of these “cleansing practices”. Perhaps it is wrong of me to question these practices because I don’t really understand them.

These practices seem to reinforce that women are subservient to men. Girls like this grow up in an environment where their voices are probably not heard.

The question I ponder is whether or not the mothers of these girls willingly agree to such practices. Are they subjugated to the will of the men in their community who make the choice for them?

The message we should be giving to our girl children is that they look different to boys and that, although their emotional/psychological make-up is different, they are equal to boys in all other aspects of life. They can fly space craft, they can drive racing cars and become presidents. Just like humanity needs men, it needs women too. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) strongly affirms the worth and dignity of every person – no matter what their gender is.

Girl children (and women) – in patriarchal cultures and environments particularly – need strong men, especially, to stand up and speak out against anything that threaten their dignity and worth.