Empowering Women to Hold Up Half the Sky

28 08 2009

Her family in need of money, at age 14, Abbas Be left her home in Hyderabad, India and went to New Delhi to become a maid…or so she thought. Instead, she was locked up in a brothel, beaten, gang raped, made to service customers sexually, made to watch girls who didn’t comply be murdered, and was never paid for her work. Eventually she was rescued by police and taken back to Hyderabad, where she found a home in a shelter that helps trafficked girls heal and learn skills for a new life. Abbas is getting an education, has learned bookbinding, is counseling girls on how to avoid being trafficked, and is earning enough money to help her sisters get an education and help them avoid being trafficked.

How can we improve the plight of women and girls globally? One very important way is through education, as is demonstrated in this story and many others in the upcoming book Half the Sky BookHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which will be released on 9/8/09. The book is written by the husband and wife team of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and journalist and author Sheryl WuDunn, who have both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. They wrote an essay called “The Women’s Crusade,” which is adapted from the book and appeared on 8/17/09 in the New York Times. Here are some of the things they report:

  • In 1990, while living and reporting in China, they read an obscure report that stated that 39,000 baby girls die in the first year of life annually in China because parents don’t get girls the same medical care they do boys.
  • A bride is burned once every two hours in India because the dowry isn’t high enough or the husband wants to get rid of her to marry someone else.
  • Anywhere from 60 to 107 million females are missing from the planet due primarily to not getting adequate nutrition and health care. This number is more than all the men who were killed in all the wars in the 20th century.
  • The poorest families in the world spend approximately 20% of their incomes on alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts and only about 2% of their income on educating their children. Studies show that when women are able to have an income, it is more often spent on good food, medicine, and housing and children are healthier.
  • In some cases, fathers drink away $5 a week at bars…$5 that could purchase a mosquito net and save a child from dying of malaria.

Sometimes even the simplest things can make a huge difference in the lives of girls. Examples mentioned in the article are:

  • A study done in Kenya by Harvard economist Michael Kremer showed that the best way to motivate sixth grade girls to better academic performance is to offer them a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade and recognition at an assembly.
  • In another Kenyan study, it was shown that dropout and pregnancy rates can be significantly reduced by providing a $6 school uniform to girls every 18 months.
  • Another way to keep girls from missing classes is to aid girls in menstruation by providing pads and a place to change them.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

President Obama has appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls. Nicholas and Sheryl have three concrete recommendations for the Council, which would cost no more than the U.S. has given to Pakistan since 9/11:

  • Set aside $10 billion over the next five years to educate girls all over the world.  When Larry Summers was chief economist of the World Bank, he said that “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”
  • Sponsor a drive to help countries all over the world iodize salt and eliminate iodine deficiency. Approximately a third of households in developing countries don’t get enough iodine and it can affect particularly female fetuses and reduce girls’ IQs 10 to 15 points.
  • Provide $1.6 billion over the next 12 years to eradicate obstetric fistulas. A fistula is a hole formed inside a woman during a difficult childbirth and it can leave her smelly, incontinent, and shunned by her village. It only costs a few hundred dollars to repair.

There is a Chinese saying that inspired the title of the Kristof/WuDunn book:

Women hold up half the sky.

Sometimes women just need a little help. If you’d like to make a difference in the lives of women and children all over the world, here are just a few of the many organizations that would appreciate even a small donation:

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We Can’t Afford To Turn Away

31 05 2009
We pay a high price for refusing to look at the atrocities being committed all over the world. The atrocities continue…bodies, minds, and hearts are destroyed…and we bear a collective responsibility and guilt for allowing them to continue.
 
My family members and friends rarely visit my blog and read my posts. Most never have. They don’t want to read about what I write about…particularly the abuse and injustice toward women and children all over the world. I try and talk with them about it and they don’t want to hear.

To refuse to see and acknowledge what is going on winds up hurting all of us at a very deep level. We deny the humanity of others who have less opportunity and more injustice than we do. How can we live with that? By staying incredibly busy and tuning out the inconvenient and raw truth? How authentic are our lives when we constantly do that? How authentic is our humanity?
 
Here’s an excellent New York Times op-ed column on this posted May 30. What are your thoughts?

“Holding On to Our Humanity” by Bob Herbert

Overload is a real problem. There is a danger that even the most decent of people can grow numb to the unending reports of atrocities occurring all around the globe. Mass rape. Mass murder. Torture. The institutionalized oppression of women.

There are other things in the world: a ballgame, your daughter’s graduation, the ballet. The tendency to draw an impenetrable psychic curtain across the worst that the world has to offer is understandable. But it’s a tendency, as Elie Wiesel has cautioned, that must be fought.

We have an obligation to listen, for example, when a woman from a culture foreign to our own recalls the moment when time stopped for her, when she was among a group of women attacked by soldiers:

“They said to us: ‘If you have a baby on your back, let us see it.’ The soldiers looked at the babies and if it was a boy, they killed it on the spot [by shooting him]. If it was a girl, they dropped or threw it on the ground. If the girl died, she died. If she didn’t die, the mothers were allowed to pick it up and keep it.”

The woman recalled that in that moment, the kind of throbbing moment when time is not just stopped but lost, when it ceases to have any meaning, her grandmother had a boy on her back. The grandmother refused to show the child to the soldiers, so both she and the boy were shot.

A team of female researchers, three of them physicians, traveled to Chad last fall to interview women who were refugees from the nightmare in Darfur. No one has written more compellingly about that horror than my colleague on this page, Nick Kristof. When I was alerted to the report that the team had compiled for Physicians for Human Rights, my first thought was, “What more is there to say?”

And then I thought about Mr. Wiesel, who has warned us so eloquently about the dangers inherent in indifference to the suffering of others. Stories of atrocities on the scale of those coming out of Darfur cannot be told too often.

The conflict has gone on for more than six years, and while the murders and mass rapes have diminished, this enormous human catastrophe is still very much with us. For one thing, Sudan has expelled humanitarian aid groups from Darfur, a move that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told Mr. Kristof “may well amount to genocide by other means.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and the systematic sexual attacks on Darfuri women have been widely reported. Millions have been displaced and perhaps a quarter of a million Darfuris are living in conditions of the barest subsistence in refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border.

The report by Physicians for Human Rights, to be released officially on Sunday (available at darfuriwomen.org), focuses on several dozen women in the Farchana refugee camp in Chad. The report pays special attention to the humanity of the women.

“These are real people with children, with lives that may have been quite simple, but were really rich before they were displaced,” said Susannah Sirkin, a deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The conditions in the refugee camps are grim, made worse by the traumas that still grip the women, many of whom were witnesses — or the victims — of the most extreme violence.

“I don’t think I was prepared for the level of just palpable suffering that they are continuing to endure,” said Dr. Sondra Crosby, one of the four interviewers. “Women were telling me they were starving. They’re eating sorghum and oil and salt and sugar.”

Dr. Crosby and her colleagues had a few crackers or cookies on hand for the women during the interviews. “I don’t think I saw even one woman eat the crackers, even though they were hungry,” she said. “They all would hide them in their dresses so they could take them back to their children.”

The women also live with the ongoing fear of sexual assault. According to the report, rape is a pervasive problem around the refugee camps, with the women especially vulnerable when they are foraging for firewood or food.

“It is so much easier to look away from victims,” said Mr. Wiesel, in a speech at the White House in 1999. “It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.”

But indifference to the suffering of others “is what makes the human being inhuman,” he said, adding: “The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”





Vaginas and Lives Mutilated in the Congo: Thoughts from the Writer of The Vagina Monologues

18 05 2009

Eve Ensler, who authored the play “The Vagina Monologues,” wrote today about the horrors of what women in the Democratic Republic of Congo are experiencing. I tried to explain  to my  mother about what Eve wrote about and she said her system can only take so much and she couldn’t hear any more. I get that. It’s hard to hear. But we must have courage and acknowledge the horrors. Only by acknowledging and spreading the word to others who will also acknowledge what is happening can the proper light be shed on this tragedy and solutions will follow. Here’s Eve’s article. All that follows was posted on Huffington Post today.

“War on Women in Congo” by Eve Ensler, posted 5/18/09 on Huffington Post

I write today on behalf of countless V-Day activists worldwide, and in solidarity with my many Congolese sisters and brothers who demand justice and an end to rape and war.

It is my hope that these words and those of others will break the silence and break open a sea of action to move Congolese women toward peace, safety and freedom.

My play, The Vagina Monologues, opened my eyes to the world inside this world. Everywhere I traveled with it scores of women lined up to tell me of their rapes, incest, beatings, mutilations. It was because of this that over 11 years ago we launched V-Day, a worldwide movement to end violence against women and girls.

The movement has spread like wildfire to 130 countries, raising $70 million. I have visited and revisited the rape mines of the world, from defined war zones like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Haiti to the domestic battlegrounds in colleges and communities throughout North America, Europe and the world. My in-box — and heart — have been jammed with stories every hour of every day for over a decade.

Nothing I have heard or seen compares with what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where corporate greed, fueled by capitalist consumption, and the rape of women have merged into a single nightmare. Femicide, the systematic and planned destruction of the female population, is being used as a tactic of war to clear villages, pillage mines and destroy the fabric of Congolese society.

In 12 years, there have been 6 million dead men and women in Congo and 1.4 million people displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls have been raped and tortured. Babies as young as 6 months, women as old as 80, their insides torn apart. What I witnessed in Congo has shattered and changed me forever. I will never be the same. None of us should ever be the same.

I think of Beatrice, shot in her vagina, who now has tubes instead of organs. Honorata, raped by gangs as she was tied upside down to a wheel. Noella, who is my heart — an 8-year-old girl who was held for 2 weeks as groups of grown men raped her over and over. Now she has a fistula, causing her to urinate and defecate on herself. Now she lives in humiliation.

I was in Bosnia during the war in 1994 when it was discovered there were rape camps where white women were being raped. Within two years there was adequate intervention. Yet, in Congo, femicide has continued for 12 years. Why? Is it that coltan, the mineral that keeps our cell phones and computers in play, is more important than Congolese girls?

Is it flat-out racism, the world’s utter indifference and disregard for black people and black women in particular? Is it simply that the UN and most governments are run by men who have never known what it feels like to be raped?

What is happening in Congo is the most brutal and rampant violence toward women in the world. If it continues to go unchecked, if there continues to be complete impunity, it sets a precedent, it expands the boundaries of what is permissible to do to women’s bodies in the name of exploitation and greed everywhere. It’s cheap warfare.

The women in Congo are some of the most resilient women in the world. They need our protection and support. Western governments, like the United States, should fund a training program for female Congolese police officers.

They should address our role in plundering minerals and demand that companies trace the routes of these minerals. Make sure they are making and selling rape-free-products. Supply funds for women’s medical and psychological care and seed their economic empowerment. Put pressure on Rwanda, Congo, Uganda and other countries in the Great Lakes region to sit down with all the militias involved in this conflict to find a political solution.

Military solutions are no longer an option and will only bring about more rape. Most of all, we must support the women. Because women are at the center of this horror, they must be at the center of the solutions and peace negotiations. Women are the future of Congo. They are its greatest resource.

Sadly, we are not the first to testify about these atrocities in Congo. I stand in a line of many who have described this horror. Still, in Eastern Congo, 1,100 women a month are raped, according to the United Nations’ most recent report. What will the United States government, what will all of you reading this, do to stop it?

Let Congo be the place where we ended femicide, the trend that is madly eviscerating this planet — from the floggings in Pakistan, the new rape laws in Afghanistan, the ongoing rapes in Haiti, Darfur, Zimbabwe, the daily battering, incest, harassing, trafficking, enslaving, genital cutting and honor killing. Let Congo be the place where women were finally cherished and life affirmed, where the humiliation and subjugation ended, where women took their rightful agency over their bodies and land.

Note: Eve Ensler is the playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” and the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. V-Day has funded over 10,000 community-based anti-violence programs and launched safe houses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, South Dakota, Egypt and Iraq. V-Day has launched a joint global campaign with UNICEF – STOP RAPING OUR GREATEST RESOURCE: Power to the Women and Girls of the DRC. (http://www.vday.org) This commentary was originally adapted for CNN.com from remarks Ensler made Wednesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs and the Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women’s Issues.





Celebrating International Women’s Day March 8 with a 100th Post

7 03 2009

Did you know that 70% of people living under $1 a day are women? In celebration of  International Women’s Day, I am writing my 100th post and providing some important information about women globally. First observed in the United intl-womens-day-logoStates on February 28, 1909, it is now celebrated every year on March 8th. Wikipedia includes this information about it:

International Woman’s Day (IWD) is marked on March 8 every year. It is a major day of global celebration for the economic, political and social achievements of women. In some celebrations, the day lost its political flavour, and became simply an occasion for men to express their love to the women around them in a way somewhat similar to Mother’s Day and St Valentine’s Day mixed together. In others, however, the political and human rights theme as designated by the United Nations runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are brought out and examined in a hopeful manner.

This year the global United Nations theme, which changes each year, is Women and men united to end violence against women and girls. Here are some statistics on violence against women from the United Nations website:

  • Today, many women – in some countries as many as one in three – are beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetimes.
  • Worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
  • Half of the women who die from homicides are killed by their current or former husbands or partners.
  • For women aged 15 to 44 years, violence is a major cause of death and disability.
  • More than 80 percent of trafficking victims are women.
  • More than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation.
  • 4 out of every 10 births in the world are not attended by a doctor or healthcare professional, resulting in maternal mortality being the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age in developing countries.
  • On the basis of data collected from 24,000 women in 10 countries, between 55 percent and 95 percent of women who have been physically abused by their partners have never contacted NGOs, shelters or the police for help.

Here are some other interesting facts about women globally. All are sourced from InternationalWomensDay.com.  

  • 2/3 of the world’s illiterate adults are female and 2/3 of the world’s uneducated children are girls. Educating girls is considered the single most effective strategy for economic growth.
  • Women do 2/3 of the world’s work, but receive only 1/10 of the world’s income.
  • Females in developing countries on average carry 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of water per day over 6km (3.7 miles). 
  • Only 21% of all news subjects (people interviewed or whom the news is about) are female. 
  • The Global Gender Gap Report measures the size of the gender gap (the disparity in opportunities available for men and women) for 130 countries in four critical areas: economic participation and opportunity, health and survival, educational attainment, and political empowerment. Here are how some countries ranked, with 100% representing gender equality.
    • Norway, Finland, and Sweden – all around 82%
    • Iceland (80%)
    • New Zealand (79%)
    • Phillippines, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the U.K. – 74% – 76%
    • United States (72%) – 27th on the list
    • Chad, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen (the worst at 47%) at the bottom of the list

We have a long way to go for women to realize the same rights as men, the same freedoms as men, the same education as men, the same freedom from violence as men, the same health care as men, the same pay as men, etc. etc. Take the time to appreciate the women in your life and all over the world.

Here’s a video about gender equality that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put together to celebration International Women’s Day. As the video says, “It begins with me, it begins with you, it begins with us.” Take a look.