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Op-Ed

Women's Modern Plight

Talia Carner, October 24, 2010

 

As the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) just met in Geneva for its 47th session, one has to wonder how much has changed since this international bill of rights for women was adopted in 1979. To date, the Convention has been ratified by all democracies except the United States, which finds itself in the embarrassing company of Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

Maybe we can take heart that at least Iran is promising a brighter future for its women, as in May of this year it was appointed to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, an international body "dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women."

In 2010, across the globe, women are still positioned as far inferior to men in every public sphere—political, religious, legal and economic.

Back in 1993, following the fall of communism, I was sent twice by the U.S. Information Agency to Russia to teach business skills to women bewildered by the new market economy. Through my volunteer work for the American Woman's Economic Development Corporation, I had previously witnessed the uplifting effect of microlending on African women's lives when given the chance to borrow as little as $5 from Credit Union programs and buy chair-caning tools, seeds or a used sewing machine. With the newly found self-worth, the status of these female entrepreneurs rose drastically within their families and villages: Their husbands stopped beating them, their enslaving mothers-in-law relaxed, their sons grew to respect women, and their daughters replaced their vision of life of despair with hope.

In Russia, though, I learned that with the fall of communism women not only lost their legal rights for social services, jobs and housing, but also for the minimum quota of one-third female representation in the Duma, the Russian parliament. In a country where single mothers were the norms and men's life expectancy was only 57 due to alcohol addiction, the loss of the security net meant the elimination of school meals for children and the Russian version of medical care in a country that had never had even toothbrushes or Aspirin in its stores.

Women needed to establish a women's political party—fast. But who was going to hand them the huge funding to bridge across Russia's ten time zones? Men? The mafia?
        
With all of the West's progress, no country is free of "a woman's problem," be it full legal rights, maternity care, access to birth control, religious representation, political leadership, civil liberties, education opportunities, pay equality or protection from sexual violence. Even in Sweden, the most progressive in women's equality, the political rhetoric had not closed the economic gap between men and women, and Swedish women are still facing patriarchal power-order both in the public arena and at home.

In South America, where military regimes are unconcerned about women, poverty is feminized with the highest rate of teenage mothers and with 70 percent of working women employed in domestic service. In some African nations, 2,000 maternity deaths occur for every one maternity death in Europe. In the United States, mothers are often disenfranchised and discredited in our courts. The U.S. conservative factions opposing CEDAW are more concerned with their vision of family values than with women's rights, well-being or equality.

But seeking legal justice or pay parity is a luxury reserved for women in developed and even developing countries. What happens in third-world nations stuck in the 17th century?

The same bloodthirsty societies, such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi-Arabia, that are obsessed with women's bodies' "purity"—and where women are considered property no different than goats—are also the countries that produced the most terrorists and terrorist acts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

A child-bride forced into sexual slavery in the Middle East, Asia, or South America may dream of one day fleeing the marriage into which she was sold, but she relinquishes all hope once she is the mother of several infants and fears the world outside, more cruel toward an illiterate woman than the world in which she is trapped.

Nevertheless, courageous girls who attempt to flee the rice fields of Vietnam or the steppes of Siberia for the promise of jobs abroad are likely to fall prey to sex trafficking rings. At any given year, according to a U.N. report, 1 to 2 million girls and women are ensnared into brothels from Berlin to Calcutta—or New York.

Women suffer one of the most atrocious acts when mass rape is used as a tool of war. From East Timor to Sierra Leone, wars between nations start by breaking women, shattering nuclear families, tearing apart villages, and end by wrecking a nation's spirit. But when wars end and people crawl out of the ashes, mores are shattered. In African nations, men expect sex simply by overpowering a female, making gender violence an inevitable part of school environment.

During my participation at the 1995 International Women's Conference in Beijing, I learned of the atrocities of The Dying Rooms, the Chinese orphanages where the documented death rate was 80 percent. I was asked by a group of Indian women to help develop an international campaign to force their government to activate existing laws against the burning of brides as up to one thousand women were burned alive in their kitchens each year over families' dowry disputes. I was then exposed to the plight of women in extreme traditional societies that subjected millions of African women to clitoridectomy in Africa and Muslim nations: Amnesty estimates that 130 million girls and women suffer the brutal, radical excising of most or all of the female genitalia.

Writing and speaking about women's issues made me finally examine my own family's documented 10-generation Jerusalem history. Since my grandmother, with whom I had been close, had been raised in a cloistered religious environment that blocked her extraordinary artistic talent, I set out to explore the world in which obedient 12 to 14 year olds were expected to hasten the messiah's arrival and save the world Jewry by procreating while supporting their husbands' life-long religious studies.

How much of it has remained today, a century later, in highly devout enclaves of Jewish, Christian or Hindu groups? The expanse and breadth of maltreatment of women under Islamic sharia law has been documented. But one wonders about mothers' widespread complicity in perpetuating the oppression and social order of gross inequality. It is particularly disturbing in the case of clitoridectomy. But illiterate mothers who see their daughters' only future to be married—and therefore be sheltered and fed—view the men's request for the girls' asexuality as the only meal ticket for life.

Even more disturbing is the Chinese mothers' complicity in infanticide, and more specifically, in gendercide—the killing of baby girls. Infanticide is as old as China. In Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, published in 1931, she tells of a killing of a female infant in a time of great famine. In interviews for my novel China Doll, many Chinese women told me, in a flat voice, that when they had a baby, they often smothered it with a pillow or their husband drowned it in the river.

Why today, when famine in China is a thing of the past, do mothers abandon or kill their daughters? Beyond the long-seated tradition of preference for boys (women are still referred to as "the maggots in the rice"), many Chinese women's lives are utterly miserable. Poorly educated and often medically neglected since birth, forever cut off from their birth families since their teenage years when given away in marriage, sexually enslaved to their husbands, often ridiculed, beaten, starved and made to serve their in-laws, Chinese women demonstrate the highest rate of suicide in the world. More than half of the world's female suicides occur in China, five times higher than other countries according to a study by the World Bank, Harvard University and the World Health Organization. No wonder that Chinese women do not want this life for their daughters.

What is the answer for this bleak state of global gender discrimination that results in female misery and death?

Education.

When women are educated, they delay marriage age, have fewer children, seek to educate them, and present role models for their daughters and a fresh view of women for their sons. Their earning capacity increases, they are more likely to start their own business ventures, and have a better chance to pull out of poverty.

When women are educated, they help better other women's and children's lives, seek leadership roles and run for political offices. They use the Internet to reach beyond their narrow world, and are less likely to tolerate extreme forms of religious fundamentalism that are the root of terrorism in our world today.  

Women are not the problem, but rather the solution. Had society heeded the now-40-years-old Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, women—one-half the world's population—would have helped society double its forward move toward development and prosperity.

Talia Carner's novels, "Puppet Child" and "China Doll"—and her upcoming "Jerusalem Maiden" (HarperCollins, June 2011)—are inspired by women's social issues. Her website is www.TaliaCarner.com.

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