Over 100?mln women are missing

2014-01-18 00:00

RECENTLY, I came across a documentary called Half the Sky, based on a book of the same name about the brutal and systematic oppression of women around the globe.

Various famous actresses accompanied the writers of the book and narrators of the documentary to places around the world that practise this abuse of human rights. Diane Lane went with them to Somaliland, where she was exposed to the horrors of female genital mutilation. America Ferrera travelled to India, where she met young girls entrapped by intergenerational prostitution and Olivia Wilde integrated with a group of women in Kenya who had built a women-only village to protect themselves from men. In all these places, they met one woman who was trying, and succeeding, inch by inch, to make a difference in the community in which she lives. I assume that lending some celebrity to a programme about this ongoing issue would encourage more people to watch it.

Needless to say Lane, Ferrera and Wilde were deeply affected by what they saw, as was I. I immediately downloaded the book on my Kindle.

Half the Sky was written by Nicolas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn, who are the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, which they won for their coverage for the New York Times of China’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In the book’s introduction, they speak of the day they watched as troops fired on the pro-democracy protests in the square, killing up to 800 people.

They write: “It was the human rights story of the year, and it seemed the most shocking violation imaginable”, transfixing the world and the media. A year later, they were to come across a study that found that 39 000 baby girls die in China every year because their parents do not give them the same level of medical care as they do their sons. This means that the same number of girls die every week in China as did protesters on that one day in Tiananmen Square. “Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage,” Kristoff and Wudunn write. They began to question their journalistic priorities.

They questioned how it is that the antics of prominent political figures around the world make front-page news, yet when it comes to light that 100 000 girls are kidnapped and sold to brothels in China, it’s not considered news. They conclude: “Partly that is because we as journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day …”

They quote Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who wrote: “More than 100 million women are missing”.

He noted that on average, women live longer than men, and in most places, even in poor regions, there are more women than men, yet in those places where women have few if no rights, they “vanish” because of gender discrimination.

Krostoff and WuDunn write that according to global statistics, more girls have been killed in the past 50 years, because of their gender, than men have been killed in all the wars that have occurred in the 20th century. The journalists believe that this century’s moral challenge, far surpassing any other, is “the struggle for gender equality around the world”.

Throughout the chapters, are stories of women who have suffered unimaginable horrors, from having their genitals sliced off at the age of nine in Somaliland, being doused in acid in India for perceived disobedience, to being starved in Ethiopia because sons are given priority when food is scarce. Out of all these stories, however, emerges the solution, a way for these women to escape their lives of abuse, through education and economic empowerment.

Kristoff and WuDunn are unwavering in their belief that: “Women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.”

They found evidence across the world that the only way to fight global poverty is through the economic empowerment of women through microfinancing and the education of girls. Increasingly worldwide, this is being recognised by aid agencies and influential people. It’s so obvious — educate girls so that they have the ability to become independent and are empowered to fight for their rights. Allow them to use this education by helping them start small businesses, so independence becomes a reality and they, in turn, educate their daughters and sons.

I haven’t finished the book, as I find the stories upsetting, the abuses horrifying, so I put it down for a while.

The stories are horrible, but there are triumphs and there are proven workable solutions.

We should never allow one person to inflict such cruelty on another, for any reason, and especially not because of an accident of birth.

I look forward to chapter 14, which is titled “What You Can Do”. We all have to join the fight because, as the Chinese proverb goes: “Women hold up half the sky”.

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