Your sponsored roundtable on educating girls (Society, 4 October) is to be commended both for laying bare the critical need to address this issue in general, and for acknowledging the complications and taboos around menstruation as a severe obstacle to progress. It is difficult to understand, however, why the painful topic of female genital mutilation was not also a focus of discussion. One required element in some communities of the lengthy initiation ceremonies to “adulthood” mentioned is that girls must undergo FGM. This cruel initiation, often at or just before puberty, is the marker by which potential husbands (often already owners of other wives) are in traditional thinking assured of their soon-to-be purchased wife’s virginity. Raising a girl and paying for her FGM is expensive – ceremonies are often held around harvest time when there’s more money – and bride price is increased if the girl-woman is “pure”.
Until girls are no longer perceived as chattels for exchange on the open market, the practices of FGM and early “marriage” (child rape) will continue. As your commentators acknowledge, FGM and early marriage will only be abandoned once men and women alike see these practices as patriarchy incarnate, the literal imposition of men’s power on female bodies. Assumed patriarchal entitlement remains to be challenged in many parts of the world, but nowhere more than in places where its imposition actually precludes young women even receiving an education which will empower both them personally and their wider communities.
If the international community is serious about its pledge to leave no one behind, then we cannot focus solely on women’s and girls’ education. There are more than 100 million children with disabilities across the globe – and in developing countries, 90% never go to school. Tens of millions of the world’s most vulnerable children are prohibited from participating in society, from achieving their potential, from ever having a hope of escaping entrenched poverty. The huge strides made towards getting girls into education has set the bar for what can be done for children with disabilities. My work with deaf children in the developing world has shown me that we need to be creative and trial projects in different contexts and cultures. We need better data on what is working and what isn’t. And on top of all of this, we need the global political will to act. Until then, the ambition of leaving no one behind will never truly be realised.