“The problems for women in my country are female infanticide and dowry burnings”. This reporter from India was commenting on the Clarence Thomas hearings.
She went on to explain that in some places girls are perceived as a liability. If a baby is a girl, she might be killed at birth. Parents of a young woman in some Indian cultures pay the bridegroom’s family a dowry in installments. If her family falls behind in payments, her husband may retaliate by setting fire to the kitchen when she is cooking. This often kills the wife.
Women in many parts of the world suffer from low status. In most places it is not so obvious as the examples cited above. I worked in an African country where women cannot own property or vote because they have no legal rights. An unfortunate patient who had a large tumor and needed surgery brought this home to me. She was a widow and had no male relatives. We searched before finding a man willing to sign her surgical permit.
Some statistics illustrate the point. Nearly one-half of married women experience domestic violence worldwide. Two-thirds of the world’s 1,300,000,000 very poor people are women. Women make up two-thirds of the world’s 1 billion people who cannot read.
In many parts of the world women perform a great deal of the work, but get no pay. For instance, in some countries women must carry water long distances on their heads. Often the trip is an hour in each direction. Wood for cooking fires also requires another long hike.
Despite the significant roles that women play in the home, the workplace and the community, the social and economic contributions of women are often overlooked and undervalued. One estimate of the value of domestic work that women perform is that it is worth eleven trillion dollars annually. Unfortunately, men frequently handle the money while women barely enter the cash economy. This means that women have no control over what is bought, or even if a sick child is taken to the doctor.
The inferior status of women has a lot to do with the choice of family size. Women who have low status and who have little control over their lives or their bodies tend to have many children. Women choose to have smaller families as they gain status. Not only do they have the strength to make the choice; they also gain the knowledge to make the choice become reality.
Empowerment of women is so important in decreasing our growth rate that it was discussed frequently at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. One of the featured speakers stated that empowerment of women is one of the three most important factors for decreasing the rate of population growth.
What can we do to help improve the status of women in developing countries? Most North Americans can not do much to help directly. Indirect ways are important, however, such as supporting one of the many charitable organizations that aid women in development.
We are in a position to act locally. By improving women’s status here at home, we set a good example for people all over the world. Starting with empowering women with the right to vote in 1920, the United States has led the way in improving their status. They gained more equality with men During World War II by working in many traditionally male jobs. We continue to make progress.
A few people are afraid of empowering women. Some men feel stronger if they can dominate women. Others feel threatened by women. Many men are comfortable to take advantage of the status quo, and are happy to keep women subservient. These reasons do not justify treating women as though they were inferior.
A report prepared by the United Nations identified an approach for eliminating gender disparities around the world. To summarize their strategy, they recommend that at least 30% of legislators should be women (currently only six countries meet this goal). Laws should prevent discrimination against women. Education and health care should be available to all people. Finally, women must have the same ability to borrow money as men do.
Although the status of women is improving in the United States, we can do better still. I urge you to support local groups that assist women. These include the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, and your community’s safehouse. Most of all, daily do what you can to show respect for women.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2004