[Columns, letters or cartoons published are the work of the attributed author and do not necessarily represent the official views or opinions of “The Highland Echo.”]
Last night, I watched an incredible special on PBS called “Half the Sky.” A remarkable undertaking, “Half the Sky” is a documentary, twopart special that highlights the ongoing plights of women and girls worldwide. In the preview for the special, secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton refers to women and girl’s issues as “The unfinished business of the 21st century,” which I think is absolutely spot-on.
In a world where there have been huge strides for human rights in the past century, women and girls still lag behind on a global scale. Although women make up roughly half of the world’s population, they are a small subset of the power players in the global workforce and continue to be educated at a lesser rate than men.
Data from “Half the Sky” states that while young boys and young girls enter schools at a fairly equal number, girls drop out at alarming rates. By the time high school rolls around, only a small percentage of students are female, which is particularly the case in developing regions where women are a large part of the agricultural workforce.
The series traveled to places like Cambodia to examine the sex trafficking of often very young girls in brothels and to Vietnam to explore a nonprofit that provides accessible, high quality education to girls who would otherwise not make it through primary school, much less secondary or university. Viewers meet many young women, several of them still children, who are sexually abused or emotionally and physically abused at home.
The overwhelming feeling that their respective societies do not value women as people becomes deeply personal through the eyes of those who have been cast aside as valueless product rather than human being. Watching the girls cry as they remember their childhoods spent in brothels or working 14-hour days to support an abusive father while attending high school is heart wrenching. I cannot begin to imagine the pain that these girls have experienced in such a short life or what misfortunes could await them in their adult lives.
Actress Meg Ryan, who accompanies the journalists and crew to Cambodia, makes the point that it is easy for us in the west to assume that these types of horrible problems are exclusive to places like African and Asian countries because of crushing poverty and other factors, but that is not reality. In the United States, equally qualified women continue to make less than men in every single state. In states like Wyoming, they make little more than half of what men make.
Women’s rights as a whole continue to face a constant onslaught of regulation rather than liberation. Data from “Half the Sky” states that in places like India where child sex trafficking is prevalent, Americans are the number one consumer. That means that Americans, more than any other nationality, are directly supporting the sexual enslavement of women and young girls both abroad and at home. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. It is far too easy to say that being an underdeveloped or poor nation leads to such horrific violation in women’s rights.
But in places like India and Eastern Europe, sex traffickers are catering to the needs of Americans. For the Sake of One, an organization that works to combat these practices, reports that anywhere between 14,500 and 17,000 girls are brought to the United States each year and that our country is one of the top three destinations for underage sex slaves in the world. This does not include that between 100,000 to 300,000 American children will enter into forced prostitution in a year.
So why is nobody talking about the up to 317,000 children, the majority of whom are girls, who are being raped and abused every year in our own backyards? Why do we not have an outraged public? When a small group of young boys is molested by their priest it is treated justly as the disgusting tragedy that it is. When 300,000 girls are raped for profit, it becomes a dirty little secret. We cannot live in a democracy and call ourselves Americans if we allow the treatment of our women and girls to exist on a level that is contingent with slavery.
Those of us who are not enslaved have a duty to stand up and speak out for the rights of women abroad and at home because we are human beings and have for too long been left in the dust of the relentless march of patriarchal progress. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that while not all are guilty, we all are responsible. Now is the time to break the silence. We have for too long asked quietly for an equal voice in our own lives.
It is now time to demand that women and girls worldwide be recognized as the autonomous, complete human beings that we are. We must stop at nothing short of complete, global equality.
To get involved or learn more about the global oppression of women and girls, visit Half the Sky at halftheskymovement.org, Amnesty International at http://www.amnestyusa.org or A Future, Not a Past at youth-spark.org.