Democracy Lab

What My Daughter Deserves

The United Nations wants us to make life better for girls. It's a worthy aim. But what does that mean in practice?

I'm generally not a big fan of United Nations publicity campaigns. Just take the U.N.'s habit of setting aside particular "international observance days" as a way of highlighting various worthy causes. What, for example, are we supposed to make of gimmicks like "World Poetry Day" or the "International Day of Happiness"?

One of the problems with such campaigns is that they tend to preach a kind of ecumenical optimism that hovers high above the complexity of real-world politics. Who could possibly oppose poetry, or happiness? Even Bashar al-Assad would proclaim himself fully in favor. So what's the point, then?

Cynical though I am, I have to confess that one of those days has started me thinking. October 11 marks the U.N.'s "International Day of the Girl Child." Forget the awkwardly tautological title: The event itself offers an occasion to consider some of the specific problems faced by girls around the world. That seems like a potentially constructive provocation -- perhaps because I can't help thinking about my own 9-year-old daughter and the challenges she's likely to face precisely because she's a girl.

She was lucky enough, of course, to be born in one of the world's wealthiest and most stable societies, which makes it less likely that she'll have to confront some of the uglier injustices that plague girls in other parts of the world. But of course not even the United States is immune to threats of sexualized violence or economic discrimination.

So let's simplify matters. Let's just assume that my daughter is a global citizen -- along with the world's other 900 million girls age 15 or under. What kind of life does she have a right to expect?

First and foremost, she deserves to live in a free society where her individual human rights are respected, regardless of gender. Political systems aren't necessarily the best guide to this. It's great that Rwanda has equal numbers of men and women in parliament, for example, but I wonder if that really means much in a country where the president has the final say in everything. There are plenty of benign despots in the world who claim to promote women's rights by pledging equal opportunity, but I wonder how far such pledges can be taken seriously when those women can be thrown into jail at a moment's notice for making critical remarks about their leaders.

Democracy is certainly preferable to any other form of government -- though not even the existence of democratic institutions automatically guarantees proper respect for the rights of girls. Just look at India, where village girls are routinely pulled out of school, whether they like it or not, and forced to become child brides at appallingly young ages. One Indian activist recently made an observation that certainly holds true for too many other parts of the world:

Girls are considered second-class citizens. They carry your bag to school for you. They get your dinner. The sexist attitude is ingrained in the way one is brought up here. When I had my second child, and she happened to be a girl, my in-laws, who are very well-educated people, were not very happy about it.

But at least Indians can openly discuss the shortcomings of traditional ways, which facilitates evolution and change. I'm not sure we can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia.

And while we're on the subject of girl brides: No, I don't want to see my daughter married off in early adolescence to someone who's essentially offered me the highest price. I want her to be able to choose her own spouse, and I want her -- and no one else -- to choose the moment when the time is right for that.

Needless to say, long-accepted traditions in many countries weigh heavily against doing away with child marriage. The U.N. is to be applauded for drawing attention to the broader social ills caused by the practice. (To name but one, marrying off girls at early ages almost always means that their educations are cut short.) Last year, U.N. agencies used the International Day of the Girl Child to stage a global campaign focusing on the need to do away with child marriage. I'd like to see them do more.

What else? Well, my daughter deserves to have the same educational opportunities as her male counterparts. Girls shouldn't be shunted off into vocational training aimed at turning them into better housekeepers. They should have access to all the subjects that boys are allowed to study -- including math and science, all too often viewed as "inappropriate" subjects for girls. If my daughter finds that she has a knack for engineering, why not?

Sadly, there are many societies that still hew to the notion that science, technology, and mathematics (STEM) are the natural province of men. Educational systems built on such preconceptions will tend to push female students in corresponding directions. (In China, for example, women account for only about a third of the workforce in STEM-related professions.)

Speaking of school: My daughter deserves the chance to participate in sports as she sees fit. There's nothing in the Bible, the Quran, or Buddhist scripture that should prohibit her from playing soccer, baseball, or chess. (And yet this is still a matter of considerable controversy in some countries. I hope that the growing prominence of women athletes is starting to wear down some of those pathetic prejudices.)

Next: There should be no coercive exploitation of my daughter's labor. There is no justification for slavery in the modern world. Yet this, too, is still far from a given. All too often girls are regarded as chattel, property that can be bought or sold. This is unacceptable. Human beings, and especially children, cannot be owned. Unfortunately, it is often girls who have the least power to resist such pressures, both from inside and outside their families. It's only right to push for greater protections wherever possible.

Now, I realize that it's customary in some places for children to support their families with their own work, sometimes from very early ages. This is especially true in agrarian societies, where having more children is sometimes a strategy for ensuring a bigger labor force, and thus greater prosperity, for the family as a whole. So making things better for children, and especially girls, will require a wholesale change in economic conditions -- not the kind of thing that happens overnight. Yet it's important to keep the right goal in view: Wherever possible, kids should be learning, not working.

And then there's the most uncomfortable topic of all: rape. Girls everywhere deserve to be protected from sexualized violence in all its forms. You'd think this would go without saying. But recent events show us that there are still too many men in the world who think that coercing women into sex is perfectly fine. The notorious Delhi gang rape case has helped to dramatize the dimensions of the problem. (Personally, I think I've been just as shocked by what that scandal tells us about attitudes toward rape within the Indian elite as by the crime itself.)

The U.N. is also to be applauded for taking on this topic. The organization recently conducted a study (the results of which were published in the British medical journal The Lancet) that found that one-quarter of 10,000 men interviewed in six Asian-Pacific countries had forced women to have sex with them. Worse, half of the men who confessed to having committed rape had done so as adolescents -- strongly suggesting that this is a horror that affects girls as much as it does women.

This is not the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in. She deserves to live on a planet where people treat her and other girls like her as full-fledged human beings, not as playthings or economic assets. Honoring their promise and potential will often require huge changes in established institutions and traditional ways of doing things. I'm glad that the U.N. has the gumption to take on this controversial subject by drawing attention to the problems specifically facing girls. I know it will be hard to change. But we have to try. Anything else is a betrayal.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Fight for the Soul of Russia’s Opposition

As nationalist fervor intensifies, Vladimir Putin's opponents face some tough choices.

Earlier this month, the Russian opposition movement celebrated a noteworthy moment. The anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny took on the Kremlin in Russia's most important city -- and won what many observers described as a "moral victory."

On Sept. 8, Muscovites went to the polls to choose a new mayor. They faced a choice between Navalny (shown above) and incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, the candidate favored by President Vladimir Putin. Under normal conditions, the actual vote would have been somewhat superfluous; in the topsy-turvy world of Russia's "managed democracy" it's Putin's stamp of approval that usually decides election results. If you're a pro-Kremlin candidate, you're virtually guaranteed oceans of free media coverage, plenty of cash from pro-government tycoons, and a helping hand from the administrators and factory bosses who tell their underlings how to vote. If your opponent is particularly pesky, he or she might even get some unwelcome attention from the police. But a vote, a farce though it may be, is still what seals the deal.

Navalny himself, indeed, was recently convicted of embezzlement in a trial dismissed by most impartial observers as a political farce -- and was then released on appeal so that he could enter the mayoral contest, presumably because the Kremlin figured he'd win just enough votes to make it look like more of a race. If so, it was a dramatic miscalculation. Campaigning with the help of legions of (mostly young) volunteers who pounded the pavement and knocked on countless doors, Navalny managed to garner 27 percent of the vote -- nearly forcing a run-off. None of this was supposed to happen. "I know that a third of Moscow voters cast their ballots in our favor, and I know that this is a victory," Navalny declared afterward in a public rally. "A large opposition, a genuine political movement has been born in Russia."

Is he right? Is this the birth of a viable counterweight to Putin's political machine? It would be great if it is. If there's one thing Russia needs, it's a serious opposition that can offer real political competition to the current authoritarian regime. But there are still plenty of problems in the way. The current anti-Putin movement remains deeply fragmented, a bewildering array of constantly shifting (and bickering) small parties with scant funding and little organization. Just a few days ago, several key figures withdrew from the opposition alliance that was formed during the big anti-Putin demonstrations last year -- effectively marking the end of the most serious coordinated challenge to the Kremlin in recent years. And despite the impressive rallies that the democrats managed to stage in several big cities, on the whole most Russians remain notably cool to liberal ideas.

But these are tactical issues. The real challenge is a strategic one: What does the opposition ultimately stand for? What sort of alternative policies does it offer?

Most Western media coverage of the Russian opposition movement tends to focus on activists who adhere to a fundamentally Western model of development, one based on genuine parliamentary democracy, civil liberties, and a market-oriented economy. But the anti-Putin movement is also home to a wide range of increasingly noisy nationalist groups who don't necessarily subscribe to such liberal views. They're tapping into a rising sense of anxiety and anger among rank-and-file Russians over racial and ethnic issues. In a word, "opposition" doesn't necessarily mean "liberal."

One problem is the flood of immigrants from impoverished parts of the old USSR (especially Central Asia). Russia now has the second-highest number of migrants in the world, right after the United States. It's estimated that around 3.65 million foreigners are in the country illegally, abetted by Russia's sketchy immigration policy and corrupt businesspeople eager to exploit a source of cheap labor. The authorities in Moscow have recently staged a series of crackdowns on migrants that spurred criticism by human rights organizations. At one point, the city government threw some 1,500 detainees into a tent camp on the city's outskirts.

The continuing violence in Russia's restive South (especially in the majority-Muslim republics of Dagestan and Chechnya) is also fueling tensions. In July, unrest broke out in the southern Russian city of Pugachev after a Chechen teenager stabbed a Russian man to death in a fight. Such incidents seem to be happening with growing frequency -- and Russian nationalist groups, eager to show up what they depict as the permissiveness of the current authorities, are increasingly intent on publicizing them.

Navalny believes that these problems offer a perfect opening for the opposition. He believes that Putin's critics should attack the government for its failure to address the immigration problem -- and he's not at all shy about doing so. During his mayoral campaign, he repeatedly blamed much of Russia's violent crime on immigrants (though there appears to be little factual basis for the claim). "For me this isn't just a number," he said in one of his speeches. "For me it means one simple thing: that the women in my building are afraid to go out on the street at night."

That didn't come as much of a surprise to those who have followed Navalny's political career over the years. He's participated in events staged by a nationalist group called "Russian March" that has taken up overtly xenophobic positions -- a part of his background that has caused him to be regarded with considerable suspicion by many in the anti-Putin camp. He's also been accused of ethnic slurs. Yet he remains unapologetic about his belief that the opposition should embrace identity issues. Here he is an interview two years ago (my translation):

I believe that we shouldn't treat this topic as a taboo. The failure of our liberal democratic movement is connected with the belief that there are some topics that are too dangerous to be discussed, such as the problem of ethnic conflicts. Yet this is a real issue. We have to acknowledge that migrants, including those from the Caucasus, often come to Russia with their own peculiar values.... For example, women in Chechnya who go around without headscarves are shot at with paintball guns, and then [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov says, "Well done, guys, you're real sons of the Chechen people!" Then those Chechens come to Moscow. And I have a wife and daughter here.

For the record, I don't think that Navalny is an extreme right-winger; there are plenty of them in Russia these days. He's probably best described as a conservative populist, a stance that, coupled with his strong stance against corruption, plays well among a populace that's deeply averse to radical change. Add to that his undeniable personal charisma, and you've got someone who's uniquely well-equipped to challenge the Kremlin. (It remains to be seen, of course, just how far Putin is willing to tolerate Navalny's growing strength. And no one's expecting the government to make life easy for the rest of the opposition.)

But even if the authorities decided to cut him some slack, there are obvious risks to Navalny's approach. Lilia Shevstova, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, notes that Navalny has so far succeeded in straddling the political divides within the opposition movement: "He's the first leader of the younger generation who tries to appeal to all groups. But sooner or later he'll have to choose his ideology. He'll have to decide whether he's a liberal or a national populist. And this is the crucial choice not only for Navalny but for the whole opposition."

I think she's right. Immigration and the complexities of the multicultural society pose tough challenges even for well-established democracies. For Russia, which in many ways is still in search of a stable post-Soviet identity, the task is far harder. Navalny is right to say that liberals shouldn't shy away from these fraught questions, but his often demagogic rhetoric doesn't actually offer much in the way of genuine solutions, and tends to deepen divisions rather than heal them. A good start might be defining "Russianness" through citizenship rather than ethnic identity, and to propose clear and comprehensive immigration reform based on that distinction. To do otherwise, in a society as diverse as Russia's, is playing with fire.

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images