An important television event occurred this week that could transform lives. And it wasn’t the presidential debate.
PBS broadcast a documentary Monday and Tuesday titled “Half the Sky,” which was based on the best-selling book by reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The title comes from a Chinese proverb about how women hold up half the sky, and the book and documentary are about the oppression of women and girls worldwide.
The statistics are horrifying. According to demographers, there are more than 100 million fewer women on the planet than there should be. One hundred million.
Some of that is due to gender-selective abortions, though there’s not as much of that anymore. Most of this loss is due to discrimination or abuse.
For example, in many countries girls are much less likely than boys to be vaccinated or receive medical care. Here’s a statistic from the book: “All told, girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys the same age. The best estimate is that a little Indian girl dies from discrimination every four minutes.”
Women are also dying because of discriminatory health care. For example, an estimated 500,000 women in developing countries die during pregnancy and childbirth each year, or about one woman every minute.
Women are also killed in some countries because of perceived transgressions. For example, a “bride burning” takes place about once every two hours in India.
In addition to being killed, girls are being kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. A medical journal in Great Britain calculated that “1 million children are forced into prostitution every year, and the total number of prostituted children could be as high as 10 million.”
The book also reported that “women aged 15 through 44 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.” An estimated 130 million women in the world have been subjected to genital cutting.
But the book and documentary are not just a catalog of horrors. They are full of inspiring stories of women who have overcome this oppression and are bringing about change in their families and communities.
One of the keys to this transformation is economic empowerment. If women can earn money – such as by starting a small business with the help of a microloan – they no longer have to suffer many of the abuses. And many women use the money they earn to send their children to school, which is another key to change.
More governments and aid organizations, including the United Nations, are recognizing this oppression and trying to combat it. President Obama gave an important speech last week about sex trafficking. Gov. Sam Brownback battled sex trafficking when he was in the U.S. Senate.
Ordinary individuals can also make a difference. You can find information about how to get involved (and watch the documentary) at pbs.org/halfthesky.
Kristof and WuDunn contend that ending the oppression of women and girls worldwide is the defining struggle of this century. It is one we must win.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee