By Fr Lazar Arasu
The sight of beautifully (rather seductively) decorated flower girls who are children below eight years and girls in pre-teens who are hypersexualized in clothing and cosmetics are common sights in Ugandan weddings and Kwanjula (betrothal-Introduction ceremonies). Are we aware that it is a form of violence against girls and young women? It is a clear sign of objectification of girls with a strong sexual undertones. It is consciously and unconsciously promoted by the media and advertising industry. Unfortunately it is fast becoming a social norm in Uganda today. Often we forget that objectification of girls in media is always linked to violence against girls and women.
Sexualization and Objectification of girls in the media and further enacted in our cultural and social scene expose girls and young women as sexual objects. They create a belief in our unconscious minds that girls are sexual objects. Examining various media and our social behaviour, the findings prove that girls are often portrayed in a sexual manner more often than boys; dressed in revealing clothing, and with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness. Pushing minor girls into adult life and behaviour is a clear for of child abuse and violence.
The prevalence of Sexualization and Objectification of girls is evident when: a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other basic human values; a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (in a narrow sense) with being “sexy”; a person is made into a thing for others’ sexual use; and when sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon the person. Unfortunately many forms of Beauty Contests and other modelling activities directly and indirectly promote this way of thinking and acting.
This pushes girls to chronic attention to physical appearance, restricts their physical movements, negative attitude to their body, creates anxiety, addicted to fashion, and affects healthy relationships with others and an obstacle towards a healthy intimacy.
Organization such as Violence Against Children Survey (VACS) and UNICEF approximately estimate that at least 60,000 adolescent girls die each year in the world as a result of violence and about 120 million girls in the world become victims of rape or forced sexual acts. Various statistics prove that several African countries lead in abuse and disrespect of young women in the world. This is heightened by certain unevaluated cultural ethos and behaviour.
We all agree that there is a lot of exaggeration in salon industry in a country like Uganda. In a poorer economy and poor households is it right to spend colossal amount of resources on artificial hair products and chemicals, not forgetting some of these products which are so called cosmetics are very harmful to health? For economic gains, media and advertisement industry create lot of false myth on beauty and appearance. Aspects of human sexuality is often exploited for economic gains and it affects the wellbeing of women starting from very young age.
The hypersexualized models of femininity as portrayed in the media and accepted in social settings cause negative influence in women affecting mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of girls in immeasurable ways. Girls and young women suffer the consequences immensely; they include anxiety about appearance, feelings of shame, eating disorders, lower self-esteem and depression.
Psychological surveys reveal that as few as only 11% of young girls agree that they are beautiful. This feeling of low self-esteem make girls avoid participation in activities that are important for their education and personal growth. For example, in Japan one in three 6-year-olds experience low body confidence. In Australia girls consider body image as one of their top three concerns in life. In the USA 81% of girls are worried that they are fat and in Brazil over 100,000 girls and young women go for cosmetic surgery. It would be interesting to take such surveys in Uganda and East Africa to diagnose the social problems affecting our young women.
Violence against women such as defilement, rape, trafficking of women, and rampant killing of young women and not forgetting child marriage, teenage pregnancy and abortion are directly or indirectly related to sexual objectification of girls. It contributes to harmful gender stereotypes that normalize violence against the fairer sex. We should also remember that these stereotypes are not only harmful for girls, but for boys as well. Boys are made to see how their bodies are portrayed in relation to girls and learn to believe success or attractiveness is tied to dominance, power, and aggression.
Solutions need to be sought before it is late. Educational institutions, families and other social institutions need to educate young people the value of self-pride, self-identity, self-esteem and right attitude to human body and sexuality towards the integral formation of young people. This education can be given through community mobilization, informed use of media, awareness campaigns, well thought-out guidance and counselling and other initiatives to reduce violence and gender inequality will make the society a safer place for youth, especially girls.
Let us remember that only when the youth are emancipated they will be able to build a society that is ethical, safe, healthy and productive.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB is a Priest and School Administrator.