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RIGHTS-LATAM: Working Towards Gender Equality from Childhood

By Rey Rodriguez
MEXICO CITY, Aug 10 (IPS) - The 150 experts from 20 Latin American countries participating in the seminar ''Our Girls: the Right to Equity from Infancy'' in the capital of Mexico pledged to work for gender equality from childhood.

At a seminar sponsored by the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF), the delegates of state entities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) agreed to coordinate efforts towards the formulation of public policies guaranteeing equal opportunities for children and ensuring observance of the rights of the child.

The disadvantages faced by girls, considered inferior beings only useful in domestic work in most countries of the region, constitute one of the most pernicious realities in the region, said the delegates who met here last Wednesday to Friday.

''Investing in girls means investing in human development and preparing them to participate in all spaces, in conditions equal to those enjoyed by males,'' said UNICEF representative for Mexico and Cuba Carlos Cuentas Zavala.

In order to put an end to discrimination against girls, the participants agreed to jointly carry out studies focused on more clearly identifying the gender gaps and limitations in education, healthcare and work, as well as the particular characteristics of the violence suffered by girls.

Pointing to the heavy influence of cultural and legal frameworks in the persistence of and even legitimation of the disadvantages faced by girls, Cuentas Zavala said fighting for spaces in which girls are allowed to exercise their right to express themselves and participate must take top priority.

The delegates noted that in Mexico - taken as an example for analysis by the seminar - there are legal problems that favour abuse and violation of the rights of minors.

Laura Salinas, an adviser to the National Women's Programme in Mexico, said domestic violence and sexual harassment are punishable by law and considered grounds for divorce only in the southern state of Oaxaca and the capital, while there is a legal vacuum on the question in the rest of the country.

The director of the System for the Integral Development of the Family in Mexico, Mario Luis Fuentes, called for an urgent review of local laws and for a classification of domestic violence, child pornography and the exploitation of children as serious crimes in all Mexican states.

Fuentes said the phenomenon of prostitution of children is taking on alarming dimensions, above all in Mexican resort towns like Acapulco and Cancun and the border city of Tijuana.

A full 60 percent of 6,000 females who died violent deaths cited by a study by the Mexican Foundation for Health were under 13, while seven of every 10 child victims of violence were girls. Most cases of violence in Mexico, as in much of Latin America, take place within the home.

The Foundation also noted that around 25,000 children in Mexico suffer physical or psychological mistreatment on a daily basis, mainly dealt out by their parents or other close relatives.

According to Brazilian pediatrician Raquel Misquier, there is no correlation between socioeconomic status and domestic violence, which occurs among 30 to 50 percent of Latin American families.

Another issue discussed at the seminar was child labour in conditions of inequality and exploitation. Economic Commission for Latin America statistics indicate that 17.5 million Latin American minors currently seek to earn a livelihood on the city pavements. Girls working on the streets earn less money than boys of the same age, and suffer greater marginalisation and abuse. Nevertheless, poverty and social inequality forces them to seek a living.

A survey on child labour conducted in Mexico's largest cities in May found that of the around 115,000 minors working on the streets at the time, over 34,000 were girls, while 18 percent were under six years old.

Nicaraguan sociologist Alicia Irazabal pointed out that in Latin America, girls in the labour force are almost always sentenced to long days of domestic labour, with meagre salaries and little or no social protection.

Such circumstances, she underlined to IPS, deprived them of the chance of access to education and personal development, in direct contravention of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

The participants in the seminar said that in spite of international declarations and commitments and above and beyond the limited advances made, the situation of children, and especially girls, remains alarming in Latin America.

The Latin American delegates and representatives of UNICEF pledged to work together and launch an ongoing process of reflection, analysis and discussion on the rights of girls. (END/IPS/tra-so/rr/ff/sw/98)