Saturday, 4 September 2010

Are Women Suffering the Greatest Injustice of the Twentieth Century?

In this exclusive interview we talk to Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winning co-author of " Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide". We discuss the reasons for the subversion of women's rights, and look at issues ranging from education, to global conflict, economics, health and policy. We discuss differences in women's challenges between the developed and developing world, and look at possible solutions for this malignancy in our societal structure.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, September 2010

Following World War II, a series of military tribunals were held, where prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of the defeated Nazi Germany were prosecuted and sentenced for crimes ranging from planning and initiating wars, to crimes against humanity (outside lines of battle) including the establishment of Jewish Ghettos in Eastern Europe, the widespread use of slave labour and the operation of "Vernichtungslager" (extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau). In recent history, tribunals have opened to hold people to account for crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia (the ICTY) and the Rwandan Genocides (ICTR) with the International Criminal Courts launching investigations (ongoing) into conflicts in Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Darfur (Sudan), and the Republic of Kenya. The enforced slavery and rape of between two and four hundred thousand "comfort women" held in brothels in south-east Asia during World War II, though, remains unprosecuted.

The Rome Statute (which created the International Criminal Court) defines crimes against humanity as, "...particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. However, murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice." Against this backdrop of impressive rhetoric, we must consider how (as is noted in 'Half the Sky'), "it appears that more girls have been killed in the past fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine 'gendercide' in any one decade, than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century. " This book continues to discuss how there are over three million women and girls worldwide who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade, "...we are talking about three million people who, in effect, are the property of another person and in many cases could be killed, by their owner, with immunity." This statistic doesn't even include near million people trafficked across international borders every year (to contextualise that, Half the Sky discusses how, 'in the peak decade of the transatlantic slave trade, in the 1780's an average of just under eighty thousand slaves were shipped across the Atlantic from Africa to the new world'). Economically, the Global Fund for Women identify how, "Women perform two-thirds of all labour and produce more than half of the world's food. Yet, women own only about one percent of the world's assets, and represent 70 percent of those living in absolute poverty."

Where one would argue that failure to act is part of, "a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority" we quickly begin to see that women are facing, and have suffered, one of the greatest human rights atrocities of this century.

In this exclusive interview we talk to Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winning co-author of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide". We discuss the reasons for the subversion of women's rights, and look at issues ranging from education, to global conflict, economics, health and policy. We discuss differences in women's challenges between the developed and developing world, and look at possible solutions for this malignancy in our societal structure.

"Sheryl WuDunn, the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, is a best-selling author, business executive and lecturer. She is currently president of TripleEdge, a social investing consultancy, and works as a director with Mid-Market Securities, an investment banking boutique serving the middle market. She is co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a New York Times best-selling book about the challenges facing women around the globe. WuDunn has also been leading the development of the Half the Sky multi-media effort to create a thoughtful, effective philanthropic strategy that includes an online social action campaign, a documentary series and a television special. Previously, WuDunn worked at The New York Times as both an executive and journalist. She has also been vice president, in the role of investment advisor for private clients, in the investment management division at Goldman, Sachs & Co. and a commercial loan officer at Bankers Trust. With her husband, Nicholas D. Kristof, she has co-authored two other best-selling books about Asia: Thunder from the East and China Wakes. WuDunn won a Pulitzer Prize with her husband for covering China, along with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement. She has also won other journalism prizes, including the George Polk Award and Overseas Press Club Awards. WuDunn was honoured for Half the Sky in 2010 with the Beacon Award from the White House Project, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to advance women's leadership in all communities and sectors. WuDunn graduated from Cornell University, where she is a member of the Board of Trustees, chairs the Academic Affairs Committee and is a member of the Board's Finance Committee. She earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and an MPA from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, where she was a member of its Advisory Council.."

Q: How can women be idolised yet their rights be subverted?

[Sheryl WuDunn] It does seem like a contradiction that women can, at the same time be idolised, and treated so miserably; and the reason that happens in some ways is that they aren't being viewed as people. That would mean that in the case of certain cultures, for instance in Pakistan and India, women are [effectively] put on a pedestal. Their 'honour' is so important that a woman has to commit suicide if she is raped because it destroys the honour of the family. You can see how these concepts become more important than the concept of 'women as human beings', because [in these circumstances] they are not looked upon as human beings and are, in effect, objectified and so once you understand they are being looked upon as objects, it isn't so hard to understand how they can be treated both well, and poorly.

Rights are a different issue, though, as you have to talk about what kind of rights are being protected. In some cultures- a father or 'elders' of a family, would protect the honour of their family, in the sense that they have a daughter who they want to marry off, and they want to protect her honour to protect to family. that doesn't necessarily mean they will protect her right to free speech, so one must put rights in context.

Q: What is the role of women in society and in global development?

[Sheryl WuDunn] I see the role of women, ultimately and ideally as productive members of society. Women and men are different, but they still have the right to reach their full potential. In terms of development, they play a critical role in many aspects of trying to further economic progress, education and the very structure of society. In society as a large, women tend to play a diminished role in respect of their rights, and therefore [their rights] have to be uplifted by a much larger amount for them to eventually play a greater, and fairer, role in society.

For instance, if you talk about "life or death" scenarios, there are between sixty and one hundred million missing females in the world population. Demographers have analysed birth ratios based on census and other data in society, and there should be a certain number of males and females in the overall global population. If you estimate what the numbers should be, there are sixty to one hundred million missing females in the global population. A lot of this is due to human nature factors, which contribute to this, and there are a lot of smaller factors. One of the largest factors is maternal mortality. In places like India, one in seven women are expected to die in childbirth, partly because they do not have any healthcare- imagine having a baby in the bush? this wouldn't happen in western societies, and you can imagine how easy it would be for medical accidents to happen. Also, because of the sonogram, a lot of societies, for instance in Asia, abort the female foetus because they want a male. So if you just talk of life and death- there is huge potential to focus attention on women and increasing their role within society.
A pivotal part of this is education. When you educate a boy, and he gets married, and his wife has children- he tends to have slightly fewer children if he's educated, than his counterparts who are not. When you educate a girl, and she carries that education to adulthood, she has far fewer kids, gets married later in life, has children later in life, and educates them in a better way. One of the contributing factors to poverty is overpopulation, and if you can focus on educating girls, you will slow down the rate of overpopulation. The second major factor in this context, would be bringing women into the economic workforce, giving them spending power. There have been studies done on how money is spent in family households who are below the poverty line, so people who make less than two dollars a day. These studies show that most of the spending tends to be by men (and mind you, both sides are poorly educated) and twenty percent or more of their money goes to a combination of alcohol, sugary drinks, cigarettes, prostitution, and only two percent to education. If you give women the purse-strings, they tend to spend more on nutrition (including food for their kids) and healthcare, and they tend to also make better decisions on money management, putting money into businesses to make more money and so forth. That's another example of how there are differences in how men and women can develop their household economy, and develop their regions and countries.

The Key Issues:

Q: How are women affected by poverty?

[Sheryl WuDunn] The simple fact is that people affected by poverty are unable to be as productive as other members of society. Women are terribly affected by poverty, and most of the people who are in poverty, and live below the poverty line, are women. They simply do not have any resources, and the thing they need most are educated resources. Both boys and girls have to be educated, it is a critical part of a human being exploiting their full potential. In Zimbabwe, we met many teachers of elementary schools. They will have schools, made of clay or otherwise, with a few desks, it's irrelevant how its built, it's still a school. The problem is, they have no text-books, they have nothing to teach. To say you have schools is one thing, but to say you are providing an education is another. The challenge is to ensure everyone is educated, but especially girls- as they are particularly critical in improving household economics.

Looking at agriculture, for example, education is still the key here. One problem is that the division of labour in some of these areas is such that women are working in fields where men are working half-heartedly, and so educating men and women about what needs to be done to improve their lives- can provide a levelling effect.
Education is also at the core of social mobility, even in very religious societies, education is extremely important. Obviously there will be varying levels of [education] quality, but even an elementary education is just critical. In many parts of Africa and Asia they don't even have this basic level. This is not a problem that's limited to women, many men in these regions simply do not receive education either, and so it's important that they get educated as well. This also has the role of educating society, whatever its structure, to look at women as human beings.

Q: Why are women the target of violence and rights abuses in times of war and peace?

[Sheryl WuDunn] Increasingly, they are being used as a weapon of war. In the Congo, for instance. It's just a tactic in war, it's that plain and simple- in that they want to terrorise a society. If you kill people, there's traces, there's blood, it's messy, there's evidence you've been killing. If you rape, there's basically no trace. Women are loathed to report something like that, they don't complain to the authorities, but you still terrorise society and achieve the same outcome, and create a weapon of war.

You can also see this as a tool of domination. In many cases, even in domestic violence, the aim is to dominate- and studies show it usually occurs amongst the less educated, which leads us back to the key point that we must educate young boys and girls, that violence in all forms, including violence against women, is not the way to build a society.

Q: What are the key global health issues facing women?:

[Sheryl WuDunn] Both AIDS and maternal mortality are the key challenges. In terms of maternal mortality, as I mentioned in Asia one in seven women are expected to die during childbirth. Africa has amongst the lowest rates of survival in childbirth (highest rates of maternal death). This is partly due to a lack of healthcare, and what little exists, is often provided by religious organisations such as the church. It is therefore very important to improve healthcare delivery.

Often maternal and HIV/AIDS healthcare cannot be delivered within the same healthcare delivery unit, as there are often problems in that when financial aid is given for AIDS it's terms state it cannot be used to pay for maternal healthcare, and the topics are therefore disconnected. The issues are, though, very complex, and people have to make the connection. A woman, for example, who has AIDS and has a baby, will pass the disease to her child. With better healthcare and education, this could be avoided. There has to be a much more holistic approach in this case, which is expensive, but we do have the answers- this is not high technology or research driven, this is care we can, and should, deliver right now.

The developed world went through the same problems over a hundred years ago, not so much with AIDS, but certainly with maternal mortality. One of the most common injuries associated with childbirth is obstetric fistula. Years ago, the US had many incidents of obstetric fistula, and we got it dealt with, it's very treatable- but there is no political will to treat it in many countries. For example, in Half the Sky, we talk of an example of a woman who was thirteen years old at the time when she fell pregnant after being married against her will. She ran away and had her baby in the bush. She was too young, the baby died and she suffered a fistula. Her villagers didn't know what to do with her, so they put her in a hut at the edge of the village, and ripped off the doors for the Hyenas to get her. So here she is, this poor girl, who had to fight off hyenas with a stick she found in the hut. She dragged herself to the nearest village, where she knew there was a foreign missionary. The village was over 30 miles away. By the time she got to his doorstep, she was half-dead. Luckily he knew what was wrong, and he took her to the Addis Ababa fistula hospital, where they cared for her. The hospital noticed she was smart, and the girl is now a nurse at the hospital, saving hundreds of thousands of lives of women who suffer the same thing she went through. She is a productive member of society, part of the solution and not the problem. This is the message we are trying to convey in society.

Q: What are the key differences in the challenges women face in the developed and developing world?

[Sheryl WuDunn] There are so many to enumerate, First is the lack of maternal healthcare, which leads to maternal mortality. You also have sex trafficking being a major, and extremely debilitating problem. These women are not really prostitutes, prostitutes at least make money. They are basically slaves, kidnapped and held in brothels against their will, forced to work- and not paid a dime. They often die of AIDS as they are not allowed to use protection. This is just an abominable cruelty. The third area concerns rape and violence against women in conflict areas, and in other areas where there is just incidence of rape, honour killing and other forms of violence.

In Half-the-Sky we talk of issues around sex trafficking, maternal mortality, and violence against women. The difference between developing and developed world, in terms of how women are treated, comes down to the question of life and death situations. The missing sixty to one hundred millions females come from the developing world, not the developed world. In the developed world, there are more females than males. This comes as a result of the simple biological fact that women live longer than men, and are often more prudent with their health.

The Solutions:

Q: To what extent have women's rights policies and frameworks assisted?

[Sheryl WuDunn] The solutions have to be broad based, there is no one "bullet". Frameworks and policies are needed, as is a renewed focus on rights is needed, but these are not the sole solution. One needs a broad base- the international institutions such as the World Bank, UN and IMF must implement programmes that will help women as well as men, economically. You also need a broad based civilian movement. You need people to care about this issue. If people don't care, then nothing will get done. Politicians will not move their feet unless it's in their own self interest and it becomes in their self interest if their voters say "we care about this issue, and we want to know your views, and what you're going to do about it." They will do something if their voters care. That's why every person counts, every vote counts. Every individual has a voice, and can voice their opinion for change. Politicians themselves can, and have, been taking action through non profit organisations, NGO's and other organisations. To be more effective, though, they need more money, more power, more infrastructure.

One thing that's really critical is that in addition to education and giving economic opportunity in the form of jobs, we must create sustainable solutions. In the sense that a lot of women don't want charity, they want a livelihood. This may involve an initial piece of charity, but they ultimately want to survive on their own and create their own livelihoods, so the key is to develop sustainable solutions. This is the same model we adopt in the 'for profit' world, where sustainability of projects is critical. I also think there is a third way. Instead of separating the 'for profit' and 'non profit' world, you can have a 'for profit' organisation that really does good, a socially aware organisation (social enterprise) which is really integrated in its aims to create social good. This could be providing pumps for clean water, bringing internet access in an affordable way to the developing world, developing solar and battery operations to cope with the lack of electricity in areas. These are for-profit activities which can benefit the world, and companies are starting to do this now.


Many arguments around sexual justice form around the principle of equality. The fact is, as Peter Singer states In his 1974 paper, All Animals Are Equal " is simply not true that all humans are equal. Like it or not, we must face the fact that humans come in different shapes and sizes; they come with differing moral capacities, differing intellectual abilities, differing amounts of benevolent feeling and sensitivity to the needs of others, differing abilities to communicate effectively, and differing capacities to experience pleasure and pain. In short, if the demand for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality. It would be an unjustifiable demand." His assertion is quite simple, equality is not a factual logical statement based around any set faculties or capacities, but more, "...a prescription of how we should treat humans." He illustrates this by citing Jeremy Bentham, a prominent utilitarian who gave his formula for ethics as "Each to count for one and none for more than one."

In this same paper, Singer discusses the injustice facing women. "In recent years a number of oppressed groups have campaigned vigorously for equality. The classic instance is the Black Liberation movement, which demands an end to the prejudice and discrimination that has made blacks second class citizens. ...When a majority group - women - began their campaign, some thought we had come to the end of the road. Discrimination on the basis of sex, it has been said, is the last universally accepted form of discrimination, practiced without secrecy or pretence even in those liberal circles that have long prided themselves on their freedom from prejudice against racial minorities.". He adds, "...if we have learnt anything from the liberation movements, we should have learnt how difficult it is to be aware of latent prejudice in our attitudes to particular groups until this prejudice is forcefully pointed out. Practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable come to be seen as the result of an unjustifiable prejudice. Who can say with confidence that all his or her attitudes and practices are beyond criticism? If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must be prepared to re-think even our most fundamental attitudes. We need to consider them from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by our attitudes, and the practices that follow from these attitudes. If we can make this unaccustomed mental switch we may discover a pattern in our attitudes and practices that consistently operates so as to benefit one group- usually the one to which we ourselves belong- at the expense of another."

This last comment is critical. James Griffin (former White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford) extends this thought further in his book, 'on Human Rights'. "A person is a bearer of human rights in virtue of being a normative agent, and women are equal to men in normative agency. Their being denied rights is therefore unfair." He continues, "... Some objectionable forms of discrimination clearly violate human rights, as when the thuggish organs of a government randomly round up members of a hated racial minority and subject them to painful physical abuse. It might seem initially that this periodic abuse need not destroy its victims' autonomous agency, but it usually would. Simply to be a member of a hated- or even a merely scorned or belittled- group would be likely to undermine one's life as an agent. A member of a hated minority would be inhibited from speaking out on unpopular issues, and from acting in a way that would attract the majority's attention. And members of a hated group living in a community with police given to physical abuse would be all the more constrained. And it is hard to maintain self-esteem, hard not to sink into passivity, when one's society as a whole gives one such a demeaning picture of oneself. None the less, even though this is a violation of human rights, the most obvious thing to say about it is something different: namely, that this is a monstrous injustice, a flagrant violation of equal respect."

Whether we look at the developed world (with domestic violence, prejudice in the employment world, and so forth) or developing world (with its myriad of life and death challenges), we are not talking about policies and campaigns to tackle individual injustices to women, but at a fundamental change to the way society views itself. The injustices carried out against women, in all forms, are a fundamental failure of humanity. The reasons are varied, but the solutions come from educating society (both adults, and children) and giving all members of society (including women) the voice to speak with confidence and not, as Griffin argues, "sink into passivity". Policy and frameworks must then, as Janet Radcliffe Richards states in her 1980 book 'The Sceptical Feminist' work on development rather than reparation and compensation to bring about, "an improvement of the position of women until society is fair to them."

For society oppression of women is creating a huge social-loss, and exacerbating issues ranging from economic instability to terrorism, poverty, and overpopulation. The unjust economy we have built is collapsing under the weight of such factors, and we must, therefore, acknowledge that the rights of women lie at the heart of these solutions. Ruth Harrison (a leading author and activist) once said, "..cruelty is acknowledged only when profitability ceases."

Throughout history, whether we consider the realms of religion, literature, fine-art or music, or our own interactions as individuals, women have been revered for their qualities of elegance, motherhood, intuition, creativity and more. Most religions associate the very nature of creation itself, of nature, as being feminine- speaking of Mother Nature, Mother Earth and more. In Chinese philosophy the concept of Yin represents an equal half of "Yin and Yang" - the symbol describing how, "polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other in turn." and in Hinduism, the female form "Shakti" is the divine feminine creative power, the female counterpart without whom the male aspect remains impotent and void. In the Hebrew language, for example, the divine presence of God, the Holy Spirit, is represented by Shekhinah- a feminine form.

It is, then, to be considered a great hypocrisy for us as a civilisation to idolise and revere the feminine with such love, and to blindly accept (and inadvertently condone) the abhorrent prejudices, injustices, and crimes which occur against women in the developed and developing world.

Regardless whether we are people of faith, or our background, one of the key shared experiences of humanity (and, indeed, one of the basic primal forces that defines us as being human) is Love, the unconditional wish for the happiness of someone else rather than ourselves- and to use that basic tenet as our motivation for change, we must heed the advice of Richard Bach who said, “If you love someone, set them free."

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