Redefining the War on Women: The International Front

Every day millions of women and girls around the world are subjected to unspeakable cruelties and deprived of basic human rights.  They are stripped of their basic human dignity and denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential.  These atrocities are largely ignored by the communities and countries in which they take place, and are too often ignored by the global community.  In October, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women and Girls Worldwide, a documentary produced by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn, premiered in the United States.  The documentary followed the 2009 release of their New York Times best-selling book of the same title. The title refers to the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” meaning that families, communities and nations cannot reach their potential if women are not treated as equals and are not given the opportunity to thrive.  Through the tremendous efforts of Kristof and Wudunn, the book and the subsequent documentary have launched a movement to raise awareness about the oppression faced by women and girls around the globe and inspire action to eradicate violence against women in an effort to bring them out from the margins of societies that oppress them.

Contributors to the documentary rightly describe ending the global oppression of women as the unfinished business of the 21st century.  Around the globe, many women are subjected to lives of poverty, have little if any access to adequate healthcare, are denied any form of education and are completely disenfranchised economically. Many cultures accept domestic violence as a norm, tolerate rape as unfortunate but forgivable, permit the genital mutilation of young girls as a religious custom and view the sale of girls and women to brothels as an acceptable capitalist venture.

Half the Sky takes viewers into slums, villages and homes around the world to expose the horrific oppression faced by millions of women and girls.  Kristof travelled to Sierra Leone to shed light on the rampant gender-based violence that takes place in the previously war-torn country.  In Sierra Leone, rape is often accepted as a part of reality and devirginization remains a source of pride for men.  Women and girls who are victims of rape meanwhile are shamed and often disowned by their families.  As the documentary explains, while the action of rape is seen as unfortunate but forgivable, being raped is considered a sin.  Thus, due to the risk of being shamed and poor police investigations, not even one percent of the 10,000 cases of reported rape have resulted in a conviction.

Half the Sky’s exploration of Cambodia revealed a sex trafficking industry that views girls as expendable.   Young girls are stripped of their dignity as they are forced into prostitution. In addition to being forced to accept clients for sex, girls sold into Cambodia’s sex trade are often severely beaten (sometimes to death), subjected to forced abortions and are rejected by the families who sold them.

In Vietnam, the society’s preference for male children has excluded many women from the educational system and has denied them access to participation in the economy, subjecting them to lives of poverty and keeping them dependent on abusive husbands.

In Somaliland, women do not have the right to access a health care professional.  Since women are viewed as expendable, providing women with health care is viewed as a waste of resources.  Somaliland is therefore an extremely dangerous place to get pregnant.  Women who give birth in Somaliland have a one-in-twelve chance of dying during childbirth.  Pregnant women are often too young to safely carry babies, midwives are not adequately trained, and women have no access to prenatal care. Babies are often delivered in unsanitary conditions where the risk for infection and complications is extremely high.  The practice of female genital mutilation is the main cause of pregnancy complications.  Three million girls around the age of seven or eight are “cut” due to a perverse tradition.  The result of the mutilation makes childbirth extremely dangerous, yet the practice continues in the name of tradition.

The documentary then moves to India, where more women and girls are trafficked than in any other place in the world.  India’s caste system has fostered a tradition of intergenerational poverty, in which young girls from society’s lowest castes are essentially destined to lives of prostitution, often sold to brothels between the ages of nine and thirteen.  Even more so than in other countries, prostitutes in India are considered disposable and are often killed by their owners.

Each story in the documentary, however, highlights the tremendous efforts being made by individuals to alter backward traditions that accept violence and cruelty and perpetuate oppression. These individuals often work to provide educational and economic opportunities for young girls and women so that they might escape what is in many cases their death sentences and create better lives for themselves and their children.  In Sierra Leone, Amie Kandeh runs the Rainbo Center which provides counseling for rape victims and works with local law enforcement to see perpetrators arrested and prosecuted.  In Cambodia, Somaly Mam, a former child prostitute operates a rehabilitation center for young girls rescued from brothels.  In Vietnam, John Wood operates Room to Read, a school that works to promote literacy for children and creates equal educational opportunities for young girls.  In Somaliland, Edna Adan founded the Friends of Edna hospital, which provides quality care for expectant mothers and their babies as well as trains midwives to provide care and educate their communities.  And in India, Urmi Basu founded New Light, which is a shelter that protects and educates young girls who are at risk in the red light district in Kolkata, India.

Finally, in Nairobi, Kristof highlights the work of emerging micro-financiers that provide loans to women, enabling them to start their own businesses.  Women who benefit from such loans often become the main breadwinners in their households, giving them economic independence and making it less likely that they will be subjected to physical abuse from their husbands.

The atrocities committed against women and girls around the world are horrific and unimaginable to many of us.  They are perpetuated by the realities of extreme poverty and attitudes deeply rooted in traditions that suggest that women and girls are less valuable than men, that their purpose is to serve men and as such that they are ultimately expendable.  If change is to be realized, there must be a fundamental shift in the way these societies view and value women and girls.

However, just as there must be a fundamental shift in the attitudes these communities have about women and girls, there must be a shift in our own attitudes.  Yes, of course, we as Americans and as people of faith clearly consider the gross human rights abuses inflicted upon women and girls around the world as evil and immoral. But whether it is due to the fact that we lack true awareness, that distance has made us indifferent, that we have adopted some idea of cultural relativism or that we feel that the challenges are so widespread and the problems are so deep that our actions and our support cannot possibly make a difference, we must change our relative inaction.  If we are to claim that we recognize the human dignity of all people, we must acknowledge, as Kristof says, that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. No child in the world is safe unless all children are safe, and the injustice of these realities has to arouse anger and move us to action.