The Ultimate Weapon

Here’s what she was almost martyred for.


What a brilliant idea!

Identify a freedom women in developed countries have taken for granted for decades. Recognize how the lack of that freedom in developing countries is yet another force — so simple and obvious it’s been unrecognized — holding girls and women back from access to education and achievement. Then turn the remedy into a business opportunity for young women.

What are we talking about? The availability of safe, convenient sanitary supplies.

Says Elizabeth Scharpf of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE):

I started SHE because of my shock and outrage at the incredible scale and effect of the problem: of girls and women lacking access to affordable, quality, sanitary pads. Currently, girls and women in this setting—if they have an option at all—turn to either premium priced international brands, which are too costly for widespread and sustainable use, or to alternative methods such as rags, which, in combination with a lack of a clean and accessible water supply, are potentially harmful and do not effectively contain blood flow. Poor girls and women in rural settings may even use dried mud, or even bark. As a result of girls’ unmet need for affordable, high-quality sanitary pads, they are often absent from school—missing up to fifty days of school per year—thereby, thwarting their educational and professional potential.

Slogan:  better sanitary protection.  period.

Talk about things that make you go “DUH.”

Before You Decide Feminism is Dead . . .

. . . listen to Isabel Allende.  Listen to her even if you don’t share her politics, or would disagree with her solutions, because she is right about so much beyond our relatively safe and special world. Oh, and because she’s funny.

Girls Rule, But the Cost is Cruel.

The figure of the teenage girl unleashes the most creative and destructive forces at work in the world today, writes Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail:

What you see in the streets and workshops and houses of the fast-growing parts of the world are young women, generally under 21, working hard. What you see aboard the trains and minivan-buses and horse-carts of the world are teenage girls, moving to the city.

As in Europe in the 19th century, young women often make up the largest group of people leaving villages for the city, sent to work alone, often in domestic service or garment piecework, and save their families. Half the world’s urban population is under 25, and considerably more than half of these are young women, because the men so often stay behind.

The girls tend to have more job opportunities in the informal, hustle-based economies of modern cities; they also tend to be treated far, far worse than anyone else, abused sexually, mutilated, impregnated, forced into prostitution, married to strangers. They are both the main agents of change and its predominant victim.

The opportunity and the danger tend to amplify each other. Fear of such fates, and other mythic images of debased innocence stoked by the terrifying shock of sudden change, leads the fathers and brothers of newly urbanized daughters into the hysterical comfort of extreme religious and political beliefs.  The cruel ascetic offshoots of Islam in much of the Arab world, the violent political perversions of Hinduism in India and the waves of fundamentalist Christianity across the Southern Hemisphere, are in large part responses to, or manipulations of, anxieties over the idealized images of one’s daughter.

In fact, you could say that the most potent forces in the world right now – both the most promising opportunities for improvement and the most menacing and destabilizing movements and ideologies – are all centred around the mythic figure of the teenage girl.

These girls gain power by escaping early marriage and motherhood to become economic engines of their families’ survival.  They are far more likely than their rural counterparts to get an education — and women’s education is a powerful driver of poverty reduction and economic growth.  But they arouse anxieties about their safety and their families’ honor; they are both preyed on by strangers and punished by jealous fathers and brothers.

Girls are the pivot on which the world turns.

Published in: on September 18, 2010 at 3:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The Selective Destruction of Baby Girls”

Horrifying and heartbreaking:

“[W]e heard a moan of pain from the bedroom next door…The cries from the inner room grew louder—and abruptly stopped. There was a low sob, and then a man’s gruff voice said accusingly: ‘Useless thing!’

“Suddenly, I thought I heard a slight movement in the slops pail behind me,” Miss Xinran remembers. “To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slops pail! I nearly threw myself at it, but the two policemen [who had accompanied me] held my shoulders in a firm grip. ‘Don’t move, you can’t save it, it’s too late.’

“‘But that’s…murder…and you’re the police!’ The little foot was still now. The policemen held on to me for a few more minutes. ‘Doing a baby girl is not a big thing around here,’ [an] older woman said comfortingly. ‘That’s a living child,’ I said in a shaking voice, pointing at the slops pail. ‘It’s not a child,’ she corrected me. ‘It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it. Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son. Girl babies don’t count.’” […]

While such outright female infanticide is particularly pitiful and shocking, it is prenatal sex determination and sex-selective abortion that has been the real driver of the disappearance of girls:

Until the 1980s people in poor countries could do little about this preference [for sons]:  before birth, nature took its course. But in that decade, ultrasound scanning and other methods of detecting the sex of a child before birth began to make their appearance. These technologies changed everything. Doctors in India started advertising ultrasound scans with the slogan “Pay 5,000 rupees ($110) today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow” (the saving was on the cost of a daughter’s dowry). Parents who wanted a son, but balked at killing baby daughters, chose abortion in their millions.

The use of sex-selective abortion was banned in India in 1994 and in China in 1995. It is illegal in most countries (though Sweden legalised the practice in 2009). But since it is almost impossible to prove that an abortion has been carried out for reasons of sex selection, the practice remains widespread. An ultrasound scan costs about $12, which is within the scope of many—perhaps most—Chinese and Indian families. In one hospital in Punjab, in northern India, the only girls born after a round of ultrasound scans had been mistakenly identified as boys, or else had a male twin.

It’s not the poor and uneducated who are doing this:

[S]exual disparities tend to rise with income and education […] The discrepancy [is] far lower in poorer households. […] modernisation and rising incomes make it easier and more desirable to select the sex of your children. And on top of that smaller families combine with greater wealth to reinforce the imperative to produce a son.

In what might be called a sinister demonstration of the invisible hand, millions of people acting in what they think is their self-interest are not promoting but degrading the common good.  (It makes you realize that Adam Smith wrote at a time when far higher levels of natural constraint on the expression of self-interest were taken for granted.)

[O]nly one region [of China], Tibet, has a sex ratio within the bounds of nature [103 to 106 male births for every 100 females]. Fourteen provinces—mostly in the east and south—have sex ratios at birth of 120 and above, and three have unprecedented levels of more than 130. […]

[W]ithin ten years, China faces the prospect of having the equivalent of the whole young male population of America, or almost twice that of Europe’s three largest countries, with little prospect of marriage, untethered to a home of their own and without the stake in society that marriage and children provide. […]

Parts of India have sex ratios as skewed as anything in its northern neighbour. Other East Asian countries—South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan—have peculiarly high numbers of male births. So, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have former communist countries in the Caucasus and the western Balkans. Even subsets of America’s population are following suit, though not the population as a whole. […]

Throughout human history, young men have been responsible for the vast preponderance of crime and violence—especially single men in countries where status and social acceptance depend on being married and having children, as it does in China and India. A rising population of frustrated single men spells trouble. […]

The crime rate has almost doubled in China during the past 20 years of rising sex ratios […] In India, too, there is a correlation between provincial crime rates and sex ratios. […]

If you think women in these societies are valued more highly and treated better because they’re rare, think again:

[In China,] stories abound [..] of bride abduction, the trafficking of women, rape and prostitution. [… A]ccording to the World Health Organisation, female suicide rates in China are among the highest in the world (as are South Korea’s). Suicide is the commonest form of death among Chinese rural women aged 15-34; young mothers kill themselves by drinking agricultural fertilisers, which are easy to come by. The journalist Xinran Xue thinks they cannot live with the knowledge that they have aborted or killed their baby daughters.

A long-term consequence of the scarcity of women is the loss of freedom:

In “Bare Branches” [the Chinese term for bachelors], Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer gave warning that the social problems of biased sex ratios would lead to more authoritarian policing. Governments, they say, “must decrease the threat to society posed by these young men. Increased authoritarianism in an effort to crack down on crime, gangs, smuggling and so forth can be one result.”

And yet, the Economist story ends on a hopeful note.  South Korea, partly through a deliberate campaign to enhance the value and desirability of girls, and “thanks in part to societal changes that saw more young women working and thus able to support aging parents,” has sharply reversed the trend and returned its sex ratio to much nearer normal.  India and China may be ready to follow suit.

Meanwhile, I have to restrain myself not to indiscriminately hate China for its reckless destruction of two of my favorite things:  tigers and girls.

“Educate a Girl . . . Change the World.”

It’s called “The Girl Effect.”  (Stick with that little video; there are some interesting statistics at the end, to wit:  “A woman or girl will reinvest 90% of her income into her family.  A man will reinvest 30-40%.” And:  “For every development dollar spent, girls receive less than two cents.”)

Powerful social and economic change [is] brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate in their society. Why girls? Adolescent girls are uniquely capable of raising the standard of living in the developing world. Girls are the most likely agents of change, but they are often invisible in their societies and to our media. The Girl Effect is rooted in the work of the Nike Foundation, which has been joined by the Nova Foundation in a shared mission to create opportunities for girls, and for the world.

In an “on the other hand” to my last post on Afghanistan’s retreat from women’s rights, @gregmortenson (author of Three Cups of Tea) tweets:

Good news in Afghanistan? Greatest increase school enrollment in modern history 2000: 800000 students 2009 8+ million – 2.4 million r girls!


Follow the trail back to his website and find more trailheads, for instance:

Alima – CAI Newsletter
Central Asia Institute is proud to present our 1st edition of our electronic newsletter, Alima, which keeps you e-posted on our achievements and upcoming events. Alima (pronounced ah-LEE-mah), means a learned and wise female. An Arabic name of Hebrew origin, it stems from eilm, meaning knowledge in Urdu or a well yielding much water in Arabic. Alim denotes a male scholar in Arabic and Urdu, with Alima being the feminine form. This is dedicated to all the hard-working girls in CAI’s institutions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Intriguing to me since in my twenties I started a very short-lived magazine of women’s writing called elima, which was the name of a girls’ initiation rite in Africa.  Given the diffusion of Arabic through Africa, there could be a linguistic connection.

UPDATE: More on how to empower girls and women.  And if you pre-order this book, you’ll have it in less than a month.  This stuff is a no-brainer.  Or maybe I should say a brainer.

Published in: on August 15, 2009 at 12:22 pm  Comments (1)  
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