Nearly 173 years ago, on October 16, 1847, a book authored by “Currer Bell” rolled off the presses and quickly provoked a combination of praise, revulsion and gossip.
“It is a very remarkable book,” wrote a reviewer named Elizabeth Rigby. “We have no other remembrance of one combining such genuine power with such horrid taste.”1
Many literary critics today still consider Bell’s novel, Jane Eyre, remarkable, but perhaps not for the same reasons Rigby did. For one thing, Jane Eyre opens with a girl at the center of its action. And this girl is a dynamic and well-rounded protagonist with a depth, voice and independent spirit that were groundbreaking for the time.
As grown-up Jane narrates her story, readers journey with young Jane through girlhood. They feel what she feels as she experiences the sting of abuse, the devastation of loss, the joy of friendship and the empowerment of education. They watch how these experiences shape Jane into a young woman who faces messy adult situations with resolve and integrity.
Jane Eyre stands as one of the earliest and most prominent examples of a coming-of-age story with a female protagonist, and it is still considered by some to be one of the greatest novels ever written.2 Much of the strength of this story derives from the strength of its female title character, a character created by an author who had experienced girlhood herself. (“Currer Bell” was in fact a woman named Charlotte Brontё.) This novel preceded countless other popular woman-authored novels and series describing a girl’s journey to womanhood: Little Women; Anne of Green Gables; Little House on the Prairie; To Kill a Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, to name a few. These stories have captivated audiences spanning generations and nationalities.
In many developing parts of the world, girls struggle to survive.
They face abuse, neglect, discrimination, trafficking and child marriage, even in the most economically stable and educated nations.
Perhaps these stories still speak to audiences today in part because they remind readers of what it means to be a girl. A girl can be imaginative and creative. A girl can overcome loss, abuse, neglect or public humiliation. A girl can learn to forgive. A girl can develop skills and abilities. A girl can think and analyze. A girl has the potential to grow into a strong woman.
A girl is a human being created in the image of God, and He is writing a nonfiction story in each girl’s life. Too often, however, girls’ dignity is robbed by other humans who do not recognize their value as human beings and God’s image-bearers. Too often, girls are treated as burdens, as sexual objects or as machines purposed solely for physical labor and child-bearing. Yet as girls learn of their value in the eyes of their Creator—and as they gain access to education, justice and financial stability—they are once again able to live as the protagonists in their own stories.
In developed areas, most girls enjoy relative stability. They go to school, eat nutritious food, enjoy hobbies, play sports and hang out with friends. But in many developing parts of the world, girls struggle to survive. Though girls in different regions may face different challenges, girls throughout the world face abuse, neglect, discrimination, trafficking and child marriage, even in the most economically stable and educated nations.
A Fight for Existence
The story of Ruth, a GFA missionary, illustrates the first and biggest threat to girls’ lives. Throughout her childhood, Ruth was treated cruelly by her parents.3 They made her work long hours in their fields, they didn’t feed her enough and they rarely provided her with new clothes. One day Ruth finally got the courage to ask her parents why they mistreated her.
“You should have been a boy!” shouted her father.
Ruth had three older sisters, and her parents desperately wanted a son. They even sold a field to give an offering to a priest of their traditional religion so he would intercede for them to have a son. When Ruth, a fourth girl, was born instead, her father was furious—and he unleashed that resentment on Ruth throughout her growing-up years.
Society’s abasement of girls yields tragic consequences. For Ruth, it led to a childhood marked by abuse. For thousands of other girls, it robs them of experiencing life at all: Girls face their first threat in the womb.
Some societies view girls as a liability and a financial burden, so many families decide they don’t want a daughter. This has made sex-selective abortion a devastating problem around the world.
In India, an effort to prevent sex-selective abortions has led to a ban on using ultrasound to learn a baby’s gender, but some people find illegal ways to get an ultrasound: The number of sex-selective abortions in India appeared to be growing around the start of the 21st century.4 There may be numerous reasons why parents illegally abort their daughters, especially because many of the abortions happened among educated families. Perhaps some people still fear having too many girls because they expect daughters will earn less for the family and will require a dowry payment upon marriage. Perhaps others simply value boys more.
Girls face their first threat in the womb.
Since some societies view girls as a liability and a financial burden, many families decide they don’t want a daughter. This has made sex-selective abortion a devastating problem around the world.
China, the largest nation on earth in terms of population, is still recovering from decades of its “one-child policy.” High abortion rates of girls caused a skewed sex ratio, leaving too many men and too few women.
“Over 30 years, China was robbed of millions of girls as families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure their only child was a boy,” explains Hannah Beech in an article for The New York Times. “These boys are now men, called bare branches because a shortage of wives could mean death to their family trees. At the height of the gender imbalance in 2004, 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese population figures.”5
Not only has this skewed sex ratio robbed millions of girls of life itself, but it has also threatened the girls who aren’t aborted in the womb, putting them at grave risk for abuse such as forced marriage and human trafficking.
Deprived of Opportunity
When a girl survives to childhood, she faces another great hurdle: gaining an education. An education greatly changes what choices she may have in the future. Without one, a girl may never learn to read or write. She may never be able to understand street signs, shop signs or business contracts. She may never get to choose her own career or spouse. She may never be able to help her children get an education themselves.
Many families don’t send their daughters to school for financial reasons. They can’t afford the expenses of clothing and supplies, even when they do have access to free public education. Sometimes they struggle just to put food on the table, and they deem it necessary to send some children to work to support the family. When families can’t afford to educate all their children, they may expect their daughters to sacrifice their education and help care for the home.
According to a 2018 report from Malala Fund and the World Bank, the repercussions of not educating girls are serious.6 When girls miss out on a quality education, they miss the opportunity to pursue careers that could financially benefit them and their families in the future. They also risk ending up in unstable marriages where they are abused or disrespected, and they risk raising daughters who remain in the same vicious cycle.
When a girl survives to childhood,
she faces another great hurdle: gaining an education.
Without one, a girl may never learn to read or write.
“Depriving girls of education, especially secondary school education, has dramatic costs for girls themselves, their families, communities and societies,” says the report. “These include greater rates of poverty, higher rates of child marriage, increased fertility rates, and reduced engagement in personal, familial and community decision making.”7
The report found that girls who receive only a primary education face similar challenges to women who receive no education at all. They are just as likely to marry and have children before age 18, and upon entering the work force, they earn only 15 percent more.8 When girls miss out on an education, especially due to child marriage, human trafficking or forced labor, they miss opportunities for independence and financial stability, and they risk passing on the same neglect and exploitation to subsequent generations of girls.
Childhood Cut Short
child brides worldwide, including girls under age 18 who are already married, and adult women who married in childhood.
Robbing girls of education has contributed to another global problem for girls: child marriage. In 2018, UNICEF reported there were 650 million child brides worldwide, including girls under age 18 who were already married and adult women who married in childhood.9
In some communities, child marriage remains prevalent due to poverty and deep-rooted attitudes toward girls and women. When people fail to educate their girls, they fail to see their daughters’ potential to earn income, to build careers or to dream of accomplishments beyond serving a husband and bearing children. This narrow view often causes families to perceive their daughters as financial liabilities who must be married off so a husband can provide for them.
Child marriage subjects girls to undue physical and mental stress. It gravely endangers their health, as it often pushes girls to bear children while in their teenage years. Many child brides already suffer from malnourishment, and the added strain of childbirth threatens their lives—and the lives of the babies they bear. Malnourished or unhealthy mothers often rear malnourished or unhealthy babies. Even worse, their babies may not even survive to term.
Ridhima learned this by experience.10
Ridhima was married off at the age of 12 and became pregnant only a few months later. Ridhima’s in-laws told her a pregnant lady should work to be healthy and forced her to perform difficult chores around the house, including heavy lifting. Whenever Ridhima rested because she didn’t feel well, they accused her of being dramatic to get out of work.
On top of the verbal abuse from her mother-in-law, Ridhima faced physical abuse from her alcoholic husband.
During Ridhima’s seventh month of pregnancy, her doctor said she needed to rest because of a complication. But Ridhima’s mother-in-law dismissed the doctor’s advice, and the continued strain on Ridhima’s health had tragic consequences: When the birth approached, the doctor had to perform a C-section to deliver the baby, but tragically, the child was dead.
Instead of comforting her, Ridhima’s in-laws blamed the young teenager for the baby’s death.
Child marriage not only robs girls of their childhood and endangers their health but also potentially limits and destabilizes their future. These girls typically don’t get to finish their education, so they lose opportunities to contribute to society and educate their own children. Then, if their husbands mistreat them, abandon them or pass away, these women may have very few ways to provide for themselves and their children, which may leave them susceptible to exploitation.
Corinne Redfern, a writer for The Telegraph, describes a disturbing trend in Bangladesh.
“Out of 375 sex workers surveyed on behalf of Girls Not Brides across four … brothels in Bangladesh last year, 47 percent were former child brides, trafficked into prostitution against their will,” she wrote.11
Redfern interviewed several teenaged girls who had been forced into marriage when they were as young as 11 or 12. When these girls tried to escape physical and sexual abuse, they were deceived and sold to brothels. These teenagers now face more sexual and physical abuse, and see no alternative life for themselves.
“One time, when I was new, the police came by and asked me how old I was—they said they’d had a report that I was too young to be working, and that they could help me leave,” a 14-year-old girl told Redfern. “But I don’t have anywhere to go. So I said I was 18. Now when times are bad, I think to myself, ‘This is all your own fault.’”12
The demand for child brides increases where gender-biased abortion leaves communities with a low ratio of men to women. Girls become a commodity to be secured. This problem is most severe in China, where bride trafficking has ensnared women and teenage girls from neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Myanmar and North Korea. Traffickers lure women and girls with the promise of jobs, but victims find themselves forced to cohabit with Chinese men who don’t speak their language. Often these girls and women are kept locked in rooms and raped, as their new husband and his family expect them to bear children.13
In her article for The New York Times, Hannah Beech shares the stories of Nyo and Phyu, two teenagers from Myanmar who were trafficked to China at age 16.14 A neighbor promised to find them waitressing jobs, but after 10 days of traveling, the girls realized that was not their fate. They tried to run away twice, but they were caught and locked in a room.
“The girls were split up, each paired with a supposed husband, although no marriage paperwork was ever filled out, to their knowledge,” writes Beech.
After going home with their new “husbands,” both girls were locked in rooms. Nyo was often beaten and raped by her “husband.” Phyu’s “husband” repeatedly injected drugs into her arm before forcing her to have sex. Eventually, Phyu and Nyo both gained access to the internet. This allowed police to track the girls down, prosecute the traffickers and “husbands,” and send the girls back to Myanmar.
But the traumatic experience left both girls with painful life circumstances.
Nyo ended up giving birth in Myanmar to a daughter by her Chinese “husband.” Phyu suffered physical and psychological damage from the abuse she experienced.
“Before this happened, Phyu was so happy and active,” Phyu’s mother told Beech. “But they gave her something to make her forget and trigger her sexuality. They beat her. She doesn’t know she is ruined.”15
When many think of trafficking, they imagine a woman or teenage girl being forced to work in a brothel. While this does make up a large percentage of cases, the trafficking of girls can take a variety of forms. For some, like Ashmita, it means working as a domestic servant.17
After Ashmita’s father died, she and her mother moved into someone’s home to earn a living doing housework. Later, Ashmita’s mother sent her to work in another family’s home. Ashmita, who wasn’t yet 10 years old, was forced to wash dishes and clothes, mop floors and massage the legs of her employer. When Ashmita grew physically tired from the labor the house owners demanded, she was beaten and slapped. One time, the woman of the house put chili powder in Ashmita’s eyes.
For other girls, human trafficking means forced labor in the internet pornography industry, massage parlors that function as fronts for sexual exploitation, or “beggar mafia” networks. Whatever the form of trafficking, it leaves a deep, long-lasting mark on a girl’s psychology.
“Trafficking victims often find it difficult to overcome the traumatic reality of their exploitation and share details with law enforcement authorities that could aid in prosecuting their traffickers,” states the U.S. Department of State.18
“Girls who complete secondary school become healthier, more prosperous adults,” writes the Malala Fund. “Girls who receive a secondary education are more able and likely to contribute fully in their families, communities and societies, as earners, informed mothers, and agents of change.”25
Resisting Child Marriage
Education can help girls avoid the trap of child marriage. At school, girls may learn about the dangers of child marriage, which can help them educate their own parents. Also, as girls acquire skills and knowledge at school, they and their families see the possibility of higher education and attractive career options.
At age 13, Krupa, a Bridge of Hope student, came home one afternoon to find a crowd of people at her house. Bewildered, she asked her mother what was happening, but she only told Krupa to follow instructions. As Krupa’s neighbor started telling her to do things, Krupa realized she was being roped into a pre-wedding ceremony. Her parents were marrying her off.
Thankfully, Krupa had learned at Bridge of Hope about the dangers of child marriage, and she had promised herself she would never marry before age 18. She wanted to attend university and become a teacher.
Desperate to stop the impending wedding, Krupa borrowed a cell phone and secretly called Bridge of Hope staff members.
“Within just half an hour, they arrived at our house like angels,” Krupa recalls. “They came directly to me without looking at anyone. All I could say to them was, ‘I am only 13. What would you do if I was your child?’ They needed nothing more to hear and understand the whole situation.”
The Bridge of Hope staff talked to Krupa’s parents and explained the laws against child marriage. Krupa’s father promised not to arrange her marriage before she turned 18.
“I thank the Bridge of Hope staff for saving me from becoming prey to the trap of child marriage,” Krupa says. “My friends and school teachers admire me for my courage, but I am just glad to be an inspiration for many young girls.”
With the help of the education she received and the support of the Bridge of Hope staff, Krupa kept her promise to herself. She finished her education, graduated from Bridge of Hope and became a teacher, just as she’d hoped. She did eventually marry at age 20, when she was old enough and educated enough to make decisions about her own life.
Bringing Freedom, Justice and Restoration
Education makes girls less vulnerable to child labor, trafficking and child marriage, but justice demands the world not only protect girls from these evils but also rescue victims of trafficking and help them recover.
International Justice Mission (IJM) is one of the largest organizations working to free, defend and restore victims of trafficking. IJM and other organizations often work to track brothels where girls under age 18 are being forced to work. They work with law enforcement to remove girls from the brothels, see that perpetrators are appropriately prosecuted and help survivors to receive aftercare.
Earlier this year, IJM worked with police from two states in India to disrupt a cross-country sex trafficking ring.27Police in one region noticed girls were being trafficked to a city on the other side of India. IJM supported the police in both states as they located a brothel where many of these girls were being held. Manisha, who had been rescued from the same brothel when she was a minor in 2018, played an instrumental role, sharing information that helped direct police to the brothel. On February 22, the teamwork of IJM, the police and Manisha led to the arrest of four suspected traffickers and the rescue of two girls who had been imprisoned in the brothel.
Many other organizations like IJM work to rescue girls from trafficking, prosecute traffickers or provide aftercare to survivors. Other organizations combat trafficking by holding businesses accountable to prevent forced labor. Through initiatives such as the Freedom Seal label, consumers can help end trafficking by supporting businesses that have taken the necessary steps to block slavery from their supply chains.28
Rani Hong, the creator of the Freedom Seal initiative, fights against trafficking as someone who has survived it.29 Rani was trafficked when she was only 7 years old, forced to work 12 hours a day in a brick factory and kept in a cage at night. After she became physically unable to work, she was trafficked in an illegal adoption scheme.
Rani ended up in a loving home in the United States, grew up, got married, had children and eventually reconnected with her mother and siblings in India.
But Rani didn’t forget her childhood experience; she began working to prevent other children from facing the same fate. She spoke before the Washington State legislature to pass a law criminalizing human traffickers. She became a UN special adviser on the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, and she created the Freedom Seal label, mentioned above, to promote businesses free from child labor and trafficking.30
Ashmita, the girl forced to work as a domestic servant, also found freedom from child labor. After government authorities learned of her situation, they placed her in a home for girls run by GFA workers. There, Ashmita received care and encouragement from Sisters of Compassion and other GFA missionaries. She got to attend school. She played and made friends with the other girls at the home, who became like sisters to her.
“I like this place so much; I like all these didis [older sisters]. They work hard for me and for all of us,” Ashmita shared. “I like this place, and I don’t [want] to leave this place and go to any other place or orphanage because of the love and care that we get here.”31
Now, as Ashmita flourishes in a stable home where she is receiving education and care, she can dream about the future.
Writing New Chapters
In Jane Eyre, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and most other popular coming-of-age stories about girls, the heroine gets a satisfying ending—the ending the characters and the readers both long for. Jane Eyre, Jo March and Anne Shirley find contentment accomplishing their dreams and living in safe homes with the people they love.
Real life doesn’t always bring neat, happy resolution, but it does bring the same element of hope found in those fictional stories—in an even more powerful way. In the true stories of girls such as Ruth, Ridhima and Ashmita, redemption is dawning over years of devastation and pain. As God brings restoration to their lives, they are helping many more girls to overcome the antagonists of abuse, discrimination and exploitation and to embrace their identities as daughters of the King of kings.
Ruth understands the power of this transformation as she continues to help more girls, women and communities by training younger women to minister Christ’s love to people in need.
“Let many sisters come up,” she says, “and then we will make a new history for the world and for Christ.”32
Be Part of Writing a New Story
You can help write a new story for girls around the world. There are several ways you can give girls the chance to know their value in God’s eyes and to embrace the future with confidence and strength. Here are just a few:
Give To Help Girls at Risk
If you want to help girls at risk in South Asia, consider a one-time donation to stand in the gap for children who have been rescued from desperate situations into Bridge of Hope but still lack permanent sponsors to cover their monthly needs to remain in school.