SUFFERING inequality around the world and invisible for years from the women's movement, girls now share the spotlight.
Unlike past United Nations conferences at which girls got hardly a mention, the Sept. 4 to 15 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the parallel Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum in the nearby suburb of Huairou were, as heralded by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the American first lady, "a special celebration of girls."
The world's women rallied around the "girl child" as she faces a growing struggle for a fighting chance to survive infancy and lead a healthy life in many poorer countries.
Investing in the future
"The theme is investing in today's girls, tomorrow's women, and the future. We know that much of what we do, we are doing not for ourselves, but we are doing for our daughters, our nieces, our granddaughters," Mrs. Clinton said in a speech at the NGO forum.
"We are doing it because we have the hope that the changes we work for will take root and flower in their lives," the first lady added.
In an unprecedented endorsement in the 150-page Platform of Action - an agenda for addressing women's issues into the next century worked out by delegates at the official conference - the manifesto included a separate area of concern about the girl child and incorporates references to girls into every section of the Platform.
The agenda, a nonbinding document that women worldwide will use to press for an improvement in their status, urges governments to end all discrimination against girls, discourage preferences for sons, and provide education, resources, and support so girls and young women can thrive.
The change came about as a result of two years of intense lobbying by the United Nations Children's Fund and private women's advocacy groups in Western nations, Africa, and South Asia and won widespread support at the oftentimes contentious conference.
"If women are to be equal partners with men, now is the time to recognize the dignity and worth of the girl child and ensure the full enjoyment of her human rights and fundamental freedoms," the manifesto says.
Women delegates and activists pleaded to rescue girls who are under threat in some countries even before birth. Because of a strong cultural preference for sons, girls are often the victims of sex-selection abortions or die as infants due to infanticide, neglect, and abuse in India and other Asian countries.
The world's 'missing'
In a 1990 report, economist Amartya Sen at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., estimated there were 100 million "missing women" or fewer women alive than projected by demographic experts due to these practices.
Once out of infancy, girls still face an uphill struggle in order to survive.
In many developing countries, the United Nations reports, girls get less food than their brothers, have to work harder, and have unequal access to medical care and education.
Marriages and pregnancies at early ages also pose a greater risk to adolescent girls.
Schooling has helped to better the lives of women. Educated women delay marriage, have a fewer children and later in life, and give their children better health and nutrition. But domestic demands and discrimination keeps almost twice as many girls out of school as boys.
Of the 100 million children who never finish four years of primary education, two-thirds are girls.
"The cries of the girl child reach out to us," Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said in a keynote address to the women's conference, the biggest women's gathering ever, condemning infanticide.
"This conference needs to create a climate where a girl child is as welcome and valued as a boy child," Ms. Bhutto said.