Waging a War Against Gender Inequity

“Imagine if blood spilled by women in childbirth, unpaid labor & violence against them collectively mattered like war.” On May 3rd , ‘Women Under Siege’ retweeted this post written by a woman named Lauren Wolfe; she is a perfect stranger to me, but these 140 characters shook me. Maybe, I thought, we were looking at gender inequity in the wrong framework. Maybe if we looked at it in terms of tactical strategy, the battles waged by and against women every day would gain the attention and resources that they need.

The numbers are all there. Globally, 287,000 maternal deaths occurred in 2010.1 Between 15-71% of women aged 15-49 (depending on where they lived) report physical and/or sexual abuse by an intimate partner at least some point in their lives.2 And between several percent to over 59% of women report experiencing some form of physical violence at least once in their lives.3 These statistics are only more dramatic in situations of conflict. Modern slavery- including forced sexual labor and human trafficking- disproportionately affects millions of women and girls, and has reached a scale never seen before in the history of the modern world. Child marriage persists, subjugating young women to a life externally pre-determined by their 15th birthday (11% of women between 20-24 were married before reaching the age of 15.2).4

Clearly, the barriers to health and opportunity are enormous and wide-spread. I won’t compare this suffering to that induced by our world wars, but it is comparable and deserves as much attention as our military casualties. Then why doesn’t it garner the same attention? The same moral imperative? The same urgency as other instances of violence?

Perhaps it’s because those horrific statistics seem far off, affecting distant cultures plagued by cultural backwardness and a lack of development. And they’re just data points, not our community members, not our mothers or sisters. So let’s look more closely at the United States’ pristine record.

There are over 207,000 instances of sexual assault and rape committed every year in the United States. That means that by the time you finish reading this post, more than two people will have been sexually assaulted in the United States.5 In 2011, women still only earned 77 cents for every 1 dollar men earn in the United States, perpetuating a gender wage gap of 23 percent.6 Slavery exists in the United States, too: according to the FBI, 83% of sex trafficking victims (including the 293,000 American children at risk) in the US are American citizens.7 In 2010, 12.7 women died in child birth in the United States out of every 100,000 live births, and African-American women were 3.2 times more likely to die due to maternal complications than white women (34.8 deaths per 100,000 live births).8 In fact, the US maternal mortality rate has DOUBLED in the past 25 years, despite exorbitant health care spending.8

These are not ‘third world’ problems.

At the same time that these trends of gender inequity are perpetuated within our society, ‘women’s empowerment’ ideology has gained momentum. Short of calling it a fad, I do want to point to the importance of celebrity attention paid to gender discrimination. Warren Buffett, the United States’ resident financial genius, brought recent attention to the importance of investing in women; in his recent Fortune Magazine article, he embodies the practical economic approach and calls women ‘the key to America’s prosperity’.  While Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, calls on women to ‘Lean In’; I have not yet read Ms. Sandberg’s book, but it has certainly captured headlines, calling on the need for more women in boardrooms.

So while gender equity has started to gain more attention and as health care expenditure catches up to defense spending, are we seeing any real change? It’s hard to say. While I believe that any attention paid to the needs of women is important, these ‘calls to action’ might dangerously skim the surface.

I hope that powerful people calling on their powerful friends to engage in a discussion will continue to heighten awareness. However, to generate sustainable change, we have to consider the roots of the disparities, we have to use more hard-hitting strategy. In other words, while Ms. Sandberg’s plea might transform the dynamic for the elite edges of society, we have to make sure that all women have the same opportunity to succeed. To put it simply, women must first be able to see the table before they can sit at it.

As gender equity begins to gain momentum in global conversation and as a domestic policy issue, let’s not forget the graphic impact of this disparity or the enormity of the structural violence. While the percentage of female board members may be a reflection of the larger shift in cultural norms, and while it’s a critical change, we must also consider the basic human rights of all women to realize their potential: a right to health and freedom of equal opportunity (whether that be educational, professional, etc.). I don’t advocate ‘fighting’ because that implies violence, but I believe that we must change the way we talk about women’s rights. Gender-based violence and discrimination is unacceptable and should be considered with the same urgent attention we pay security threats. Let’s #changethenorm.

3 UN Statistical Division
6 Institute for Women’s Policy Research
7 Think Progress
8 Huffington Post