Obama's speech in Cairo this week was brilliant and the warmth with which he was received was a wonder to behold. However some were disappointed with the length and breadth in which the President touched on human rights and specifically women's rights. Responding to Obama's reference to the hijab in his speech, Peter Doau asks:
Is that a joke?
With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab? I would have been much more heartened if the preponderance of the speech had been about how in the 21st century, we CANNOT tolerate the pervasive abuse of our mothers and sisters and daughters.
To be fair, later in the speech Obama did delve further into this:
The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.
I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.
Now let me be clear: issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity - men and women - to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that people live their dreams.
Which brings us to a sad and startling picture of gender discrimination in the developing world. Researchers Siwan Anderson (University of Britsh Columbia) and Debraj Ray (New York University) recently co-authored a paper titled, Missing Women: Age and Disease. In it, they postulate that the ratio of women to men in developing regions and in some cultures is suspiciously below the global average.
The term "missing women" was coined in 1990, by Indian economist Amartya Sen, in the The New York Review of Books where he calculated that in parts of Asia and Africa 100 million women who should be alive are not because of unequal access to medical care, food and social services. Sen postulated that these with these excess deaths: women were "missing" above and beyond natural mortality rates, compared to their male counterparts.
The fate of women is quite different in most of Asia and North Africa. In these places the failure to give women medical care similar to what men get and to provide them with comparable food and social services results in fewer women surviving than would be the case if they had equal care. In India, for example, except in the period immediately following birth, the death rate is higher for women than for men fairly consistently in all age groups until the late thirties. This relates to higher rates of disease from which women suffer, and ultimately to the relative neglect of females, especially in health care and medical attention. Similar neglect of women vis-à-vis men can be seen also in many other parts of the world. The result is a lower proportion of women than would be the case if they had equal care--in most of Asia and North Africa, and to a lesser extent Latin America.
Sen went on to explain that in the world boys outnumber girls at birth, but in countries where women and men receive equal care, women have proved hardier and more resistant to disease, and thus live longer. In most of Asia and North Africa, however, he found that women die with startlingly higher frequency than in other parts of the world. Sen's research caused a sensation in academic circles when it was originally published in 1990.
Building on this data and focusing on figures from China, India and sub-Saharan Africa for the year 2000, what Anderson and Ray found out flew in the face of existing literature and commonly held beliefs about the missing women phenomenon.
"Previously, people had thought that they (the missing women) were all at the very early stages of life, prenatal or just after, so before four years old," Anderson says. "But what we found is that the majority are actually later." Female infanticide has been endemic in India and China for some time, which she says led researchers to assume that it was the source of all the missing women. But the truth is much more complicated.
Once the researchers broke down the numbers by age group, they found that the majority of excess female deaths came later in life: 66% in India, 55% in China and 83% in sub-Saharan Africa.
Using data gathered primarily from the World Bank, the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the researchers admits that getting the figures can be a huge challenge. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, many deaths go undocumented, and in India, it is virtually impossible to know how many "unintentional" deaths are actually dowry killings, because they are not accurately reported to the authorities.
One of their colleagues in the economics department at the University of British Columbia says this finding is striking, and points the way for future research and advocacy.
"Why would there be excess mortality of, let's say, 45-year-old women versus 45-year-old men?" asks economics professor Kevin Milligan. "And what they find is ... they have the same set of diseases, they just seem to die more frequently. The explanation that seems most consistent with that is differential access to health care. And so that's a really striking finding."
While they believe that lack of health care is likely a big part of the problem, there also believe that there numerous cultural and social factors that play a factor and can be difficult to narrow down. In their "elementary accounting exercise", Anderson and Ray began to plot the causes of excess death in 2000 by age group, and produced some striking numbers.
- 600,000 missing women each year from HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- In China, suicide explains well over 100,000 missing women each year..
- In India ﬁre-related death is a leading cause of missing women due to injuries (over 100,000 each year).
Dowry prices have not dropped off with improvements in education in India either. Instead, they have gotten worse, with educated brides and their families willing to pay even more for high-quality grooms. These dowry payments can be six times a family's annual wealth - an excruciating price, especially for poor villagers. The implications of this hefty sum trickle down to the first moments of a child's life. While conducting recent field work in India, villagers were asked about selective abortions and found them open about the fact that they use ultrasound to determine the baby's gender and help them decide whether or not to keep it.
"They see no other options, they really cannot afford to have a daughter."
Future research will delve deeper, seeking answers to questions such as: How often are men given mosquito nets to protect themselves from malaria, but not women? How many women die because they are not taken to the hospital when they are sick?
Most wouldn't argue that there is far more to gender equality than merely promoting education - inheritance rights, fair divorce settlements, freedom from family-imposed marriage, from culturally approved violence, from deeply held traditions of female subservience.
While Obama's speech was a start, clearly there is much work to do.