We ignore women, their needs, their rights, their abilities, at the peril of our future. Their issues are not ‘women’s issues’, they are humanity’s issues. The attempts to marginalize and/or ignore women may well be major factors in why the world is in such trouble economically and politically. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her recent TED talk points out that women are marginalized in financing: they get micro-loans rather than entrepreneurial loans. Granted, a micro-loan is better than no loan, but her point is that when a woman creates a business it is viewed as less important and less economically valuable than when a man creates one. Treating women as ‘less than’ negatively affects all aspects of not only their lives, but their children’s lives, and, although the men generally do not recognize it, the lives of men, too. Simple reasoning makes this obvious: women make up half of humanity; or, as in the Chinese proverb that provided the title for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, “Women hold up half the sky.”
As I write this, it is reported in the news that an Afghani women was strangled by her mother-in-law because she gave birth to a third daughter and not a son. Her husband also appears to have been involved in her murder. Sons are valued so much more than daughters that failure to give birth to one can lead to a woman’s death. A woman can destroy her family’s honor by being raped. The ‘solution’ is for her to marry her rapist, or to be put to death. Being jailed for being raped actually protects the woman from abuse and/or death. The girl’s hymen is no longer intact, so she no longer has value and has thus dishonored her family. As Kristof and WuDunn state, “The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.” (p. 82)
Young girls are ‘sold’ into marriages where they become virtual slaves. Choosing your own boyfriend can result in your death. These examples all involve Afghanis, but any culture that does not value woman equally with men will find ways to demean, mistreat, and abuse women. For instance, a judge in Canada (and he is not alone in this, as similar views have been expressed by judges in the United States) gave a mild (no jail time) sentence to a rapist because he, the judge, felt the woman had asked for it. These actions are done to keep women in their place, a place that is well below that of men.
Kristof and WuDunn have written a moving book highlighting the many, many ways women suffer from oppression throughout the world. But they have also written about the women who have fought back against oppression and who are making better lives for themselves and other women. For this to happen, the women must see themselves as valuable and as equal to men. Education is the key. Cultures that oppress women seek to deny girls access to education. But cultures can change. This is something that is too often ignored. Simply because it has ‘always’ been done this way does not mean that it always will be done that way. Holding back girls and women results in holding back the future. Clinging to the culture of the past not only marginalizes women, but marginalizes that culture in an interconnected and globalized world. Cultures can and do change. Education is the first, vital step.
Education gives girls knowledge and with knowledge they begin to realize that they should have a voice in their lives; a say in what happens to them. With knowledge comes the power to fight back against injustice. The first girls and women in their communities to come to this realization are very courageous. They frequently must endure great abuse and hardship. But they and their stories, as told by Kristof and WuDunn, serve as examples to other women and girls that change is possible, and change begins to happen.
Enmeshed with education are the healthcare needs of girls and women. Girls who do manage to attend grade school often disappear from school when they begin to menstruate because the schools lack the facilities the girls need during their period. A husband and brother in India realized just obtaining pads for menstruating girls and women was a problem, so he set out to solve this. Girls are also often forced into marriage at that time, which also ends their education. They need a way to manage their menstrual cycle and to obtain birth control so that they can continue their education. Denying birth control to girls and women because of religious reasons (as has been done with US foreign aid) in effect denies them a future of their own choice.
When a large percentage of women in a particular country are educated and enfranchised, their political power is harder to ignore. Issues that had been ignored, such as public health and children’s health, move to the political mainstream. When women become the majority in the government, massive cultural change is certain. In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a bloody genocide. When peace was restored, a new government decreed that women had to hold at least 30% of the seats in all legislative bodies. Women now hold 56% of the seats in Parliament. Rwandan culture has changed dramatically. Rwanda is leap-frogging into the 21st century because the country realized that women are as valuable as men.
China has a long history of valuing sons more than daughters, so much so that with the one child policy and elective abortion, the country now has an unbalanced male/female ratio. However, the government now realizes that a better policy is to educate girls and women. When women are well-educated, they want to use their skills in the workplace. This delays marriage and child-bearing while also improving the economy. Parents now realize that daughters can be just as valuable as sons. A win-win for China: slowed population growth along with rapid growth in gross domestic product. India also sees the value of educating women. Bunker Roy created the Barefoot College which educates the poor to become technicians and engineers, among other occupations. According to Roy, men are untrainable. Instead, the Barefoot College trains grandmothers.
In the 21st century, women in all cultures must be equal participants in all aspects of life and business if we are to deal with the challenges the world will face. Corporations are discovering that those boards of directors with a higher percentage of women are significantly more profitable than those with the lowest number of women on their boards.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide should be read by anyone who cares about the future. The tales the authors have collected in their journeys around the world are moving, enlightening, and uplifting. While oppression is common and severe, it is possible for change to occur. The book concludes with a plan of action and a long list of things that the reader can do to contribute to the change that must occur. The website (linked to above) also provides opportunities for action. “Women are half the sky.” We cannot succeed in the 21st century without equality for all women and men.
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