Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

No question about it—this one wins the award for the longest True Woman blog post ever. But, after donning my editor’s hat and mulling it over for quite awhile, I decided to include all of it. Here’s why:

1. In the last five paragraphs, Carolyn touches on why and how Christians need to not only be involved in social justice, but actually lead the charge. I don’t want you to miss this.

2. However, these five paragraphs mean next to nothing apart from the context of the need. As Christian women, it’s important we realize the depth to which people around the world are suffering.

Once you’ve read it, I’d love to know, how much of this information is new to you? Do you agree with Carolyn’s take on the importance of Christians working to bring about social justice? Do you have any ideas of how you can help? 

This past weekend, the New York Times Sunday magazine devoted its entire issue to "Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of Our Time." Some very sober and powerful reading there--and not what you might think upon first encountering a magazine with a title like that. In fact, these are real, global, and serious issues that should have the attention and ministry of Christians everywhere. More on that in a moment.

The lead feature was an excerpt from the forthcoming book by New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn,a former Times correspondent who now works in finance and philanthropy. The book is titled, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I've already pre-ordered it, based on the excerpt I read in this magazine. Here's a summary, one that includes an honest fact about abortion that I was stunned to read in a mainstream publication--a good indicator of the journalistic veracity of this book's research.

Traditionally, the status of women was seen as a “soft” issue — worthy but marginal. We initially reflected that view ourselves in our work as journalists. We preferred to focus instead on the “serious” international issues, like trade disputes or arms proliferation. Our awakening came in China.

After we married in 1988, we moved to Beijing to be correspondents for The New York Times. Seven months later we found ourselves standing on the edge of Tiananmen Square watching troops fire their automatic weapons at prodemocracy protesters. The massacre claimed between 400 and 800 lives and transfixed the world; wrenching images of the killings appeared constantly on the front page and on television screens.

Yet the following year we came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that outlined a human rights violation that had claimed tens of thousands more lives. This study found that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because parents didn’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys received — and that was just in the first year of life. A result is that as many infant girls died unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square. Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.

A similar pattern emerged in other countries. In India, a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry — but these rarely constitute news. When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news.

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. “More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for “missing women” of between 60 million and 107 million.

Girls vanish partly because they don’t get the same health care and food as boys. In India, for example, girls are less likely to be vaccinated than boys and are taken to the hospital only when they are sicker. A result is that girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys their age. In addition, ultrasound machines have allowed a pregnant woman to find out the sex of her fetus — and then get an abortion if it is female.

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.

For those women who live, mistreatment is sometimes shockingly brutal. If you’re reading this article, the phrase “gender discrimination” might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved. While a precise number is hard to pin down, the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, estimates that at any one time there are 12.3 million people engaged in forced labor of all kinds, including sexual servitude. In Asia alone about one million children working in the sex trade are held in conditions indistinguishable from slavery, according to a U.N. report. Girls and women are locked in brothels and beaten if they resist, fed just enough to be kept alive and often sedated with drugs — to pacify them and often to cultivate addiction. India probably has more modern slaves than any other country.

Another huge burden for women in poor countries is maternal mortality, with one woman dying in childbirth around the world every minute. In the West African country Niger, a woman stands a one-in-seven chance of dying in childbirth at some point in her life. (These statistics are all somewhat dubious, because maternal mortality isn’t considered significant enough to require good data collection.) For all of India’s shiny new high-rises, a woman there still has a 1-in-70 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. In contrast, the lifetime risk in the United States is 1 in 4,800; in Ireland, it is 1 in 47,600. The reason for the gap is not that we don’t know how to save lives of women in poor countries. It’s simply that poor, uneducated women in Africa and Asia have never been a priority either in their own countries or to donor nations. . . .

Why do microfinance organizations usually focus their assistance on women? And why does everyone benefit when women enter the work force and bring home regular pay checks? One reason involves the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men. Surprisingly frequently, we’ve come across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net; the mother says that the family couldn’t afford a bed net and she means it, but then we find the father at a nearby bar. He goes three evenings a week to the bar, spending $5 each week.

Our interviews and perusal of the data available suggest that the poorest families in the world spend approximately 10 times as much (20 percent of their incomes on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children (2 percent). If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries. Girls, since they are the ones kept home from school now, would be the biggest beneficiaries. Moreover, one way to reallocate family expenditures in this way is to put more money in the hands of women. A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier.

These are shocking, sinful statistics. They must be challenged and changed. For that reason, I am very grateful for the journalistic efforts of Kristof and WuDunn. For the same reason, I was also very grateful for the attention Secretary Clinton brought to the status of women in Africa during her visit last week.

But having researched the history of feminism in the Western world for my own book, I am also reminded of the course of our women's history. In many ways, though perhaps not as extreme, we issued the same complaints. Women in the 19th century complained of men making the same poor financial expenditures on alcohol and prostitutes, that women didn't have equality in education, and that maternal health was a neglected medical priority. But as women fought for equality, we found the fight remained long after the battles were won. Because men were identified as the problem, the gender war has never been fully resolved. Instead of unifying marriages and families, this ongoing battle continues to fracture them. So my concern is that we will import some of these same values into our efforts to help women around the world.

In fact, the opening illustration of Kristof and WuDunn's article in my opinion illustrates this perfectly. It is about a Pakistani couple where the husband is sinning terribly against his wife by beating her and otherwise neglecting her. She is in despair until she receives a microfinance loan, which enables her to set up a small embroidery business. Soon she is the village business mogul, able to employ many others and pay off her husband's debts. He no longer beats her because she is too valuable, and he has come around to the view that girls are just as good as boys.

And that's where the story ends. Yay . . . but only half a yay, really. He stopped beating her, but where is the true partnership? Where is the true repentance? Only the gospel can address sin and redemption. Economic parity can't be the ultimate solution because it can't address the heart issues. And this brings me back to why I think Christians need to be involved. If we preach equality because it's found on page one of the Bible, then we should be leading the charge in this area. But our solutions will be different because our end goals are different. Yes, we want to empower women. Yes, we want women to be educated. Yes, we want families to be healthier and more prosperous. But we don't want to do this by lifting up one person in the family at the expense of another. We have to help men change, too, by preaching the gospel and teaching them to truly apply the Ephesians 5 mandate to love their wives as Christ loved the church--without concern for cultural practices or restrictions. They must fear God and His word more than the opinions of other men and the way things are currently done in their culture.

As Christians, we have an opportunity here to help families around the world by both standing against incredible injustice against women and by preaching the gospel of reconciliation. Let's not lose any ground to lesser solutions.

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About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley

In 2009, Carolyn started Citygate Films, a documentary film company where she is a producer/director. Prior to that, Carolyn served as the media specialist for Sovereign Grace Ministries, worked in corporate communications, and was a television and commercial film producer. She is a frequent conference speaker and has authored several books.

 

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