Friday, March 19, 2010

The Paramount Moral Challenge

This week I finished reading an excellent, thought-provoking book. Entitled Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn (who are husband and wife), the book examines the injustices and inequality women around the world face simply because they are women. The authors present a lot of data but illustrate their arguments particularly effectively through the personal stories they tell of women they have met in their global work. They do not concern themselves with issues like equality in sports in America or the "glass ceiling" in the western corporate world. They concern themselves with the life and death issues that women and girls in the majority of the world face, issues like being sold into sexual slavery, dying in childbirth, being killed to protect so-called family honor and having the opportunity to gain a basic education. In the introductory chapter they summarize their conviction:

We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

After reading their book I would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. These are not simply "women's issues," as they are often regarded. They are human rights issues that should concern us all because God created women and endowed them with value just as great as men. The authors are not inherently anti-male. In fact they readily acknowledge that much of the injustice and mistreatment of women comes at the hands of other women. At the same time they point out that most of the power structures in the world have been dominated by men and therefore issues that affect women have tended to receive minor attention. Issues affecting poor women in developing countries suffer this neglect in particular. As the authors write:

Maternal health generally gets minimal attention because those who die or suffer injuries overwhelmingly start with three strikes against them: They are female, they are poor, and they are rural.

As I read this book I felt at times deeply saddened and at other times very angry that we allow these moral failures to persist. I believe that God's people should be at the forefront of this struggle for women's equality, not lagging behind. I do acknowledge, as do the authors, that believers are actively engaged in promoting women's welfare on many fronts. But I wonder if for some believers theology subtly affects their view of women, blaming them for the fall and therefore ascribing to them lesser value. Or maybe people are just not aware of the situation that women and girls in the developing world face and therefore do not realize the great need for changing that situation. Reading this book will certainly change that. Sometimes our strong support for one area, such as standing against abortion, inadvertently causes us to oppose activities that actually provide great assistance to women and in the end actually reduce the likelihood of them seeking abortions. The issues are complex, far more so than they often appear to us in our western cocoons.

Even prior to reading this book I felt a strong desire to do what we as a family can to promote the equality and empowerment of women. But I didn't have a clear idea what we could do, other than the ways we are already engaged in supporting some of the women we know here and our support of two girls through Compassion International. The authors helped me by presenting a list in the appendix of organizations that work to protect and promote women and girls. Even if I can't travel to Africa, Asia or other area, I can direct some of my giving specifically to support these organizations. Some sites even allow you to make direct contributions to specific women or projects. Two of these are and Kiva allows you to loan money to specific women who are seeking to develop their businesses. The loans are distributed through various local organizations. In most cases the money is repaid to you after a period of time, allowing you to reinvest it in another woman or project. (Currently you receive no interest on your loan, but because it is a loan you cannot claim it as a charitable contribution.) Globalgiving allows you to donate to a wide range of projects including small business development, education and healthcare. Contributions through Globalgiving are tax-deductible in the United States.

These days we hear a lot about the need to fight against terrorism. Some have made this the most pressing issue of the century. I would agree with the authors of Half the Sky that fighting for the education, health and equality of women is actually more pressing and will in the long run prove more effective against terrorism than dropping bombs and waging military campaigns, even if at times those too may be necessary. I hope that this book will stimulate the growth of the currently small movement to change the situation of women and girls around the world. I for one am fully behind it.

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