At age five, I was obsessed with my orange dress-up heels. They had turtles on them and made me feel quite grown-up. Still, as a ragamuff girl with baby-fat cheeks and a repertoire of popsicle stick jokes under my belt, I was still firmly in the “kid” realm, and would be until until around age 12, when most of my friends and I hit puberty—discovering the joy of boy bands and training bras simultaneously.
In recent years, the transition from girlhood to womanhood has seemed to come faster, and has had everyone from gossip columnists to politicians abuzz. From sexualized kindergarteners on TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” to horrific images and tragic stories of child brides in the news, the sexual maturity of young girls is in the spotlight. A new study out today complicates the issue: girls—at least in America—are hitting puberty earlier and earlier—some as young as seven years old. In the spirit of “protecting girlhood,” there’s been a lot of brouhaha over naming the culprit of early physical maturation of girls, with both obesity and environmental factors under scrutiny. But instead of pointing fingers, we need to face the facts and focus on the changing needs of girls in our lives and around the world. The New York Times briefly touched on this, saying, “Socially and emotionally, life can be difficult for a girl who has a child’s mind in a woman’s body and is not ready to deal with sexual advances from men and boys, or cope with her own hormone-spiked emotions and sexual impulses,” but neither the writer nor the experts interviewed suggested how we could prepare potentially confused girls to deal with these realities.
One of the most obvious things we need to offer to girls is early, age-appropriate, and comprehensive sexuality education. Regardless of when they hit puberty, children should know about their bodies and their rights. The urgency for such information is far greater when a girl is already menstruating and could be at risk for early pregnancy, or is having to negotiate sexual pressures, often from members of her family or community. The Netherlands is doing a fantastic job of educating youth on their bodies and sexual rights, and there are several other blueprints for how age-appropriate sexuality education can be achieved—but it’s becoming more apparent that the U.S. and countries around the world need to follow suit and make this an even greater priority.
Further, early puberty illuminates the crucial need to fight child marriage on a global scale. In Yemen, a man can legally have sex with a girl once she is “suitable for sexual intercourse” or—in other words—once she has reached puberty. While the latest study confirms that girls are hitting this benchmark earlier and earlier, it does not confirm their readiness to engage in sexual activity. IWHC’s fact sheet on child marriage explains how girls ages 14 and younger are especially vulnerable to violations of their health and rights, rarely have capacity to give or withhold their consent, and are also more at-risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS. In light of this, I hope you’ll urge your Senator and State Representatives to support the Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act.
People might not like the idea that little girls are, physically speaking, growing up faster—but that doesn’t mean we can afford to simply stick our heads in the ground, or focus only on how to stop early maturation. Puberty is scary and confusing at any age—and as girls face it earlier and earlier, it’s our responsibility to offer them any help we can.