• Column

One Billion Rising, and more

Little in the way of rights or entitlements has been bestowed on the female half of humanity without women having to fight, one right at a time.
One Billion Rising event in New York City on February 14. (Flickr/Marnie Joyce)
One Billion Rising event in New York City on February 14. (Flickr/Marnie Joyce)

On Valentine’s Day, demonstrators across the world reached beyond borders to protest persisting violence against women in an event called One Billion Rising. Prompted by the December 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman who was studying to become a physiotherapist, and the Taliban shooting earlier in the year of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who wanted to be educated, women’s rights activists are turning to sweeping nonviolent action to pierce global lethargy. A United Nations evaluation has shown that one in three women worldwide, or approximately one billion women, endure some type of violence at the hands of men in the course of their lifetimes.

When the young Indian woman died two weeks after being murderously accosted, massive vigils and solemn assemblies became national torrents as women and men demanded change. With Parliament in recess, the government was forced to move swiftly. It mandated a committee to study methods for protecting India’s women, which advocated extensive changes to Indian laws, governance and policing. Accepting many of the committee’s recommendations, the government pushed through changes in an ordinance that was approved by the cabinet on February 1 and signed into law by President Pranab Mukherjee on February 3. Its provisions became effective immediately, although Parliament needs to ratify them within six months.

The new rape laws include stringent punishments for a broad range of violent sexual assaults and for other forms of violence, such as acid attacks, stalking, stripping a woman or voyeurism. For the first time, India has outlawed trafficking, with severe penalties for both the trafficker and those who hire persons who have been sold or trafficked. Anyone employing children as household maids — a not insubstantial proportion of the Indian population — can be put behind bars for at least five years; agents of the networks that bring children from poor villages and arrange for them to work in India’s urban areas can be imprisoned for at least 14 years. Police officers or public servants implicated in trafficking may be imprisoned for life. Such stern changes are meant to act as a deterrent to India’s mammoth child-labor industry.

As mobilizations like India’s outpourings precipitate long-overdue changes at the political level, no one should be under the illusion that the genesis of change is the work of the parliamentarians, politicians or lawyers who often receive credit. The imperative came — as advances in the lot of women have usually come — from ordinary citizens who took a stand. This progress rests on decades of the slowly growing capacity of women on the subcontinent in building social movements, starting in the 1920s. Advancement for the human race in this importunate and vexing pattern of tolerance for cruelty and murder of women and girls will require both grassroots movements and proactive, preemptive policy support.

While reports of rape, murder and other atrocities in India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia prompted mounting outrage this winter, I was at the University of Oxford in Britain, among 50 experts from academia, civil society, business, governments and private sectors who had come from more than 20 countries. We wanted to build consensus on ways to counter gender inequality in “emerging-market” countries — which include India, Brazil, China and dozens of other countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe and Latin America. Oxford’s Green Templeton College convened this Symposium on Gender Inequality in Emerging Markets. Daily news accounts of massive popular protests intensified our discussions of the systematic subordination of women, usually based on beliefs that females are innately or circumstantially inferior to males. Despite some recent advances, the world’s institutions and national governments have for the most part elected to disregard gender discrimination and inequity as threats to prosperity and peace.

Women have been throughout history largely responsible for their own emancipation and uplift. Little in the way of rights or entitlements has been beneficently bestowed on the female half of humanity without women having to fight, one right at a time, most often through nonviolent direct action. Denied fundamental justice and rights, subjected to murderous violence and rape, unable to secure gender-sensitive rulings from misogynistic judiciaries, what women have done for themselves as agents of history and actors has been largely responsible for making tangible historical changes in their standing, human rights and freedom to live meaningful lives. To be sure, the presence of male allies has often helped, but the impetus has usually begun with women.

Possibly the most remarkable transnational nonviolent movement of the modern age was the women’s suffrage movement, which, following its first success in New Zealand in 1893, continued into the 20th century. Women are again organizing transculturally in One Billion Rising, availing themselves of creative nonviolent methods. National Public Radio reported, for instance, thousands dancing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In San Francisco, flash mobs burst with theatrics.

Still, much more is needed, with synergy between bottom-up and top-down action.

In wintry Oxford, the “City of Dreaming Spires,” those of us at the symposium concluded that gender inequality is not only morally indefensible, but economically hurtful. The emerging-market nations have helped to propel the world through the recent global recession, but they confront increasing restraints on their potential for sustainable growth, social cohesion and political stability. Gender inequality may be the least malleable and most urgent of these constraints.

Marginalization of women damages political systems. Abuse of women weakens societies. Waste of female talent diminishes economies. Such massively negative effects constitute a global predicament, and no country has solved the problem, although relative gender equality can correlate to national wealth and stability — as in Scandinavia and some English-speaking countries.

Gender inequality may be a proportionally larger issue in emerging-market countries than elsewhere. Public policies often cannot moderate the consequences of rapid growth. The informal sector — with large numbers of economically active women earning episodic, irregular wages from unpredictable, transitory employment — is unregulated. Traditional familial structures and customary support systems have been disordered by the effects of urbanization and industrialization.

Nearly four decades ago, the UN Development Programme and Overseas Development Council showed how the education of women and girls produces cross-cutting changes that are beneficial not solely for them, but for entire societies. Yet interventions recognized as effective in the 1970s are still not being implemented — for example, keeping girls in school and aiding entrepreneurship.

A leading Indian social scientist, together with the country’s foremost public health authority, spoke in Oxford of widespread child marriage, sexual slavery, 40 million widows (many of them children), and a bride burned to death every 90 minutes in India. The custom of dowry, which places steep economic burdens on women’s families, is now even spreading into India’s middle classes. This is part of why parents abort female fetuses — a practice that has only grown as itinerant physicians illegally transport gender-testing equipment from clinic to clinic. In the last decade, the female sex ratio, pertaining to children under age 6, fell from 927 to 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. Estimates of the “missing millions” in China are even higher.

Considered in the cold light of the patriarchal authoritarianism that is still pervasive in substantial areas of the world, the idea that economic growth will be sufficient to correct ancient prejudices and practices seems fanciful. This notion was rejected by an anthropologist in Oxford, who described how structures of socio-cultural constraints and systems of socialization trump economic factors. Income generated by women is often appropriated by men or goes to benefit them. The anthropologist put it this way: “Poor women are working for markets, but markets are not working for women.”

The answer cannot therefore be solely economic empowerment; it requires the empowerment of women across a range of social domains.

Success stories broke into our meeting like sunshine. An anthropologist offered an example from all-female Muslim mosques in China where the women worked to develop small businesses that eventually resulted in the abandonment of black headscarves and invisibility. Over time, the women introduced brightly patterned head coverings of their own design, which sold profitably, as they eventually chose visibility for themselves. In Sri Lanka, women’s groups have made an ally of one of the country’s largest employers, a major garment manufacturer, which now offers on-site banking, company commuting buses, sports and gyms, maternity leave and other innovations to create healthy workplaces. The mostly female workers manifest appreciation in high productivity, loyalty, morale and retention.

Out of the symposium came 12 concrete recommendations that emerging-market countries might adopt. These include addressing factors that inhibit girls’ education, supporting women entrepreneurs, creatively solving the problems of working parents, making gender equality a goal of national policy, following the examples of countries that have government ministries to monitor progress toward gender equality, and working to achieve compliance with pertinent international and regional agreements. The symposium recognized the value of leveraging technology in the sharing of information to help break the isolation of women. It recommends that emerging-market governments enable women to experience reproductive autonomy and sexual sovereignty, including criminalizing the neo-naticide and infanticide that result in imbalanced gender ratios. It encourages private-sector employers to create solutions for child care, elder care and other work-life challenges of employed parents of both sexes.

When governments and businesses adopt enlightened policies like these it can help, as can expanded access to mobile technology networks. (I would like to see universities, for instance, emphasize in their investment portfolios industries and firms that stress positive policies and practices of women’s empowerment — not punitive disinvestment strategies, but proactive investment strategies that recognize women as indispensable and critical agents of building more stable and peaceable societies.) But such policies also need to protect the widening civil space where women are able to work for their own emancipation through resistance campaigns that measurably benefit and improve their communities in the process. Effective solutions will require simultaneously capitalizing on both popular and official forms of power; social movements often must negotiate with those who hold executive or legislative authority, for obtaining tangible goals requires their assistance or capitulation.

For four decades we have known beyond doubt that advances for women translate into across-the-board benefits for entire communities and societies. Enough is enough. We need billions more rising.

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