International Women’s Day and Half the Sky
It was during the millennial celebrations at Agnes Scott College, the small all women’s college near our home, that I purchased a bright red t-shirt with black Chinese lettering and underneath it that ancient proverb: “Women are Half the Sky,” made popular by Mao Tse-tung. I loved the sentiment: its bold simplicity. The president of the college then was a China scholar, in fact she returned to China after her time there. This t-shirt and this campaign to lift up women’s power and rights was a natural for her, and for this college that has so much diversity and quite a few international students and scholars.
Over the years of wearing it, often to the gym, I occasionally have been given withering looks for wearing a communist quote on my chest, or comments about how out of reach equality is for women in China, even today. It may not be great, admits Zhang Yue, host of a popular women’s talk show there for many years, but, she reminds us, of the five goals laid out for women a hundred years ago: “Abolish foot binding, educate girls, free marriage, a job, and equality with men, we got the first four. But not the last one.”
This is a good deal more than the women who are half the sky in so many other countries around the world.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize winning married couple of journalists, have made both the saying and the cause of protecting and liberating women and girls much more well known, first with their book published several years ago, then the television documentary, and their educational foundation called, appropriately, Half the Sky.
They argue that while in the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or unfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss, in contrast, much of the world’s discrimination is lethal.
While this assumption underplays the real pain and suffering women and girls still suffer due to battering, lack of access to reproductive health care, and increasingly cavalier attitudes towards sexual abuse and rape, their point is one of severity and scale.
The Chinese moderator who defended the status of women in her country, downplayed the bias still against girl babies in her country, how 39,000 baby girls die each year because their parents do not give them the same medical attention as boys receive — and that’s just in the first year of life.
In India, wife burning to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry still takes place approximately once every two hours.
Forced weddings and honor killings still take place in communities in England and in the United States.
In Pakistan, women and girls are still doused with kerosene or acid for perceived acts of disobedience.
Almost two million women disappear every year worldwide, some to human trafficking, others a mystery.
Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses, Kristof often reminds us in his regular columns in the New York Times. Women worldwide are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined. More girls, the authors wrote, were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars of the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the past century.
Every day in newspapers and on the Internet we can learn stories about acts of discrimination and violence against women: a brutal attempted honor killing in Afghanistan; the gang rape in India that sparked widespread and continuous protests; attacks and murders of famous and unknown women in South Africa; women’s marches against “virginity” tests in Egypt; teenagers sold into prostitution in Haiti; a 12-year-old girl forced to marry in Kenya to pay off her father’s debts.
Every day there are ways to act to help women and girls: to emancipate them and flight global poverty, as we are urged, by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. By giving to organizations that work to empower girls through supporting school lunches or paying for iodized salt to prevent brain damage in female fetuses; sponsoring individual women; joining citizen advocacy networks.
In researching their book, the authors visited Indian brothels to see the 21st century slave trade of women and girls, an estimated three million women worldwide, who are in effect the property of another person and in many cases could be killed by their owner with impunity. They are being rescued in some cases by organizations willing to fight this sex slavery by pressuring local police and through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which has at least created some awareness.
They visited a school for girls in Pakistan, and a women’s welfare league. They visited reproductive health clinics and micro credit projects. They saw for themselves small but impactful solutions to some of the larger problems. Building schools is good, they agree, but sometimes just making sure that adolescent girls can go to school during their periods (with sanitary facilities) or introducing cable television with soap operas geared toward both entertainment and enlightenment of women and girls can make a big difference in education and self-worth.
Dining for Women chapters in local congregations are dinner-giving circles where members dine in and give the money they would have spent for a meal out to programs benefiting women, sending funds to international groups with a commitment to lifting women and girls out of poverty and misery.
Both UUA associate organizations are working to stop the exploitation and oppression of women and girls, the Women’s Federation with grants to groups in this country primarily, including billboards warning against sexual trafficking, and sympathetic counseling lines for women who are seeking abortions; and the UU Service Committee (UUSC) working in partnerships abroad.
The Service committee has helped support the Rock Women’s Group in Kenya, teaching impoverished parents and students the skills they need to take control of their own lives, protecting them from trafficking and dangerous forms of labor that often thrive during economic down times.
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, they helped Construct Camp Oasis, a home and school that is providing a safe haven for 40 girls orphaned by the catastrophic earthquake. With a secure place to live, these girls will be far less likely to become victims of gender-based violence.
These missional organizations, grounded in our principles, are enabling us all to live out our values of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of gender, and justice and compassion in human relations.
My colleague, The Rev William Schulz, President of UUSC, believes that the exploitation of women has played such a defining role in societies around the world; it might be called civilization’s original sin. And he tells us that we can never achieve a truly just world until we finally expiate that sin. As do I.
This International Women’s Day and all year round.