Women’s rights are not a “cultural issue”

Yesterday I blogged about a teacher at a Catholic school, Emily Herx, who was fired because she got IVF treatments. I received several comments that because of freedom of religion, the church can fire Herx if it wants to.

That argument doesn’t hold; it’s based on the idea that human rights for women are not important. Too many Americans believe that women’s rights are a “cultural” issue and not a political one.

If the Catholic Church “believed” that African-Americans could not be teachers or that adults should have sex with children, the American government would call that illegal. Freedom of religion does not give a religious institution the mandate to violate basic human rights.

As I wrote yesterday:

In 2010, Herx learned that she suffered from a medical condition that caused infertility. At that time, she told her principal she needed time off for IVF treatment. Her request was granted and the principal allegedly told Herx: “You are in my prayers.”…

Herx is claiming sex discrimination and disabilities discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and requesting lost wages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and compensation for her mental anguish and emotional distress.

Just like infertility, pregnancy is also medical condition. Women have all kinds of serious health complications from ectoptic pregnancies to hemorrhaging. Contraception is preventative health care. Women’s bodies are different than men’s bodies and have different medical needs. To deny women health care based on those differences is to deny women a basic human right. It’s sex discrimination, and it is appalling that this kind of abuse is tolerated in America.

When I was in college, Apartheid was the government of South Africa. Every day, there were protests against South Africa’s racist government in our campus quad. At the same time, I was taking a sociology class where we learned that cliterodectomies were performed in some countries in Africa. I was taught in my class that to condemn that procedure was wrong; it was to enforce my Western beliefs on another country. It was in this way that I was taught the concept of “relative ethics.” It took me years after my “education” to recover from that kind of teaching, to be able to say that cliterodectomies are wrong, wherever and whenever they happen.

The Taliban is gender apartheid. But the first time I ever heard about the horrible gender crimes supported by that government was not in a campus quad or even a sociology class, but in the back pages of Newsweek, where the celebrity news is. In the Nineties, I read that Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife, was trying to raise funds and awareness to help women under the Taliban rule. At that time, I was a producer for a talk radio station. I brought the article to the host of the show and asked him to talk about it on air. “Have you heard about this?” I said. He responded that our show was local, that no one in the Bay Area would care about the Taliban. “How is it relevant to our lives?” he asked.

Of course, the Taliban became relevant to Americans on 9/11. I don’t believe that a country, even ours, can isolate itself from that kind of hatred and violation of human rights, as much as we try our best to ignore them unless a celebrity happens to host a fundraiser.

In 2009, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn published Half the Sky, a book that documented sex trafficking, acid burnings, poverty, and lack of access to healthcare for women all around the world. The thesis of Half the Sky is that the world is losing its most valuable resource: women. The writers argue that in the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. That in this century, our century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for global gender equality.

I was certain that after the publication of Half the Sky and the media that the book initially received, Americans would finally get that demanding full human rights for women is essential to our survival as a human race, that human rights for women is not a cultural issue. But right now in America, in 2012, we’re fighting over contraception? In our Presidential election? For Americans not to allow all women access to contraception and to basic health care is a human rights violation. Until our government stops seeing women’s rights as a cultural issue, how can we ask the rest of the world to?

Maybe this all goes back to what my professor was trying to teach me in Sociology 101: Americans are hypocrites.

Time is now for gender equality

Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Sheryl WuDunn, gave a free talk at the Palace of Fine Arts Monday night, telling the audience the best way to stop poverty and end terrorism worldwide is to achieve gender equality. WuDunn argued that gender equality is the most important struggle of this century, and that the key to world economic progress is unlocking women’s potential.

Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half The Skywww.plannedparenthood.org 

Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half The Sky

WuDunn said that the paramount moral challenge of the 19th Century was slavery, in the 20th, totalitarianism, and in the 21st century, it’s gender quality.

WuDunn told the audience we are wasting half our resources by failing to educate and honor women. After her talk, she told me that she was inspired to write her book, because of all the missing women worldwide; they’d just vanished. No one had written about a book about them.

At the beginning of her talk, WuDunn asked the audience: Are there more women or men in the world?

About 98% of the audience (including me) believed there were more women in the world. We knew women generally lived longer than men. But this statistic only holds true in the developed world. In the developing world, women are vastly outnumbered.

Approximately 60 – 100 million women have gone missing.

Women die due to poor health care; they die in childbirth; they die from violence by men; girls are kidnapped into sex trafficking, never surfacing again, and female fetuses are aborted.

I’ve been a fan of WuDunn and her husband/ co-author/ New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ever since Half the Sky came out. About a year ago, the book was featured as the cover story of the New York Times Magazine. With the publication of this one book, national attention began to shift back to feminism and gender equality, bringing a renewed awareness in the media and in the public about the oppression of women worldwide and how that oppression affects and limits us all.

The very basis of the Taliban, of course, is oppression against women. While there was worldwide outrage about Apartheid in South Afriica years ago, no one seemed to care much about the gender crimes of the Taliban until 9-11. Even since 9-11, it’s been a challenge to keep the focus on educating women, in Afghanistan and all over the world.

WuDunn laid out a simple path to creating a better, safer, stronger world, as logical as a tenth grade geometry proof:

Overpopulation is the biggest indicator of poverty. When women are educated, they marry later and have fewer children, and they are more likely to make sure these children are educated.

WuDunn said governments must make it their highest priority to educate women.

WuDunn was asked by an audience member: Why is now women’s time?

She referred again to the missing women, then adding “Brawn used to matter.” In agricultural and farming societies, physical strength was seen as crucial to success. Now we’ve entered a period of technology and brain power, and its the opportunity for women to get ahead.

WuDunn argues again and again that the best way to bring about change is by investing in women. We’re losing our most valuable resource. When people in the audience asked what they could do to help women worldwide, WuDunn said give money to support women’s organizations. She said she loves Doctors Without Borders but we need to create Bankers without Borders, Lawyers Without Borders. We must rally our governments to commit to educating women.

Kavita Ramdas, CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, was also speaking. The Global Fund is the world’s largest grantmaking foundation focused exclusively on international womens’s human rights. Ramdas told the audience. “If you can’t help women in the Sahara, help women in East Palo Alto. Here in the United States, 70% of those in poverty are women.”

Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of Global Fund for Womenwww.abcdlady.com 

Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women

Listening to the talk, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a horrible example my home state of California, in my home country of the United States, sets with its bankrupt public educational system. How can we insist countries of the world educate women when we are are so substandard at home?

When a male high school student in the audience asked Ramdas what he could do to help women worldwide, she said, “I have a sixteen year old daughter. I worry about her. Set an example in how you treat your peers. Don’t use the words bitch and whore.”

The talk was fascinating, listening to WuDunn and Ramdas circle the globe and came back home to the Bay Area. They highlighted again and again, that until conditions improve for women, humans will not reach anything close to our potential.

Margot Magowan 

I blogged about this a couple days ago. Here are some sad stats about the lack of women in America’s leadership positions. More women are going to law school but they’re not becoming law partners; they’re in medical school but they’re not chief surgeons. Women in America get paid less for doing the same work as men, and the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed in this country. It’s worldwide problem, our worst problem. We need to recognize it exists, identify it and then eradicate it everywhere. Order sEXISTs stickers and T-shirts here, one dollar from every item sold goes to the Woodull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

Sheryl WuDunn’s talk was free to the public because it was sponsored by Facing History and the Allstate Foundation.

Facing History is an international educational and professional development nonprofit organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.

The Allstate Foundation partners with non-profit organziations and community initiatives that promote safe and vital communties, tolerance, diversity, and economic empowerment.