Our sisters' keeper

A recent United Nations report offers a sobering assessment on the condition of women.

Burmese girl

Recuperating with her newborn, this 16-year-old Burmese woman struggled for days to reach this small clinic in northwest Thailand.

"WOMAN'S WORKS IS NEVER DONE" is an adage that is becoming almost literally true for working women in the United States, who often put in a hard day's night of family chores once they return from a long day at the office, while their macho household co-pilots "decompress" on the living room couch. Still, compared to their sisters around the world, in most other areas of gender equity and empowerment, U.S. women are bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan in relative comfort. In many other societies women run a gauntlet of political, economic, and cultural forces aimed at maintaining their subordinate status to men.

By just about any social standard, women are being shortchanged around the world. While educational opportunity for girls has been on the rise, in poor nations they still remain far less likely than boys to complete even primary school. Of the world's more than 920 million illiterate people, 600 million are women. Women's diminished status is also indicated by their reduced overall access to health care. A shocking absence of basic and inexpensive care during pregnancy means that maternal morbidity among women in high-poverty nations runs at a rate 100 to 200 times higher than in the industrialized West.

Women and girls comprise more than 80 percent of the estimated 800,000 victims of human trafficking, and women remain terrifically vulnerable to violence during war or at the hands of boyfriends, husbands, or other family members. While domestic violence against women makes no economic or territorial distinctions, other forms of gender-based violence reflect marginally accepted practices in specific cultures, including rape, female genital mutilation, and "honor" and dowry-related assaults and homicides. Gender-based violence kills and harms as many women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer.

Increasingly technological "progress" collaborates in gender-based violence through prenatal sex selection that favors male offspring, while a related problem of female infanticide and abuse persists. In Asia some 60 million girls are demographically "missing" because of such violence.

The authors of a sobering United Nations report on the state of the world's women, from which these statistics are gleaned, make a convincing case that if the West is serious about its Millennium Development Goals—a plan to halve global poverty and deprivation by 2015—it must more forcefully commit to improving the economic and cultural status of women. Such engagement requires good strategy and good listening as Western entities encounter traditional societies, but a dialogue on the conditions confronting women should not be deflected by too much politically correct hand-wringing. Concerning ourselves with the plight of the world's women isn't a reflection of cultural imperialism or Western condescension but of solidarity with our sisters everywhere.

Neither should the church allow its principled disagreements with secular development entities over abortion and artificial birth control to prevent it from remaining in a vibrant dialogue on women's issues, just as it must continue its efforts to improve women's health services and access to educational and economic opportunity in the thousands of programs it supports around the world. Improving the status of women is too important a work of justice.

And U.S. economic strategists sincerely interested in what Pope Paul VI called "authentic development" might want to reconsider their obsession with free markets and instead think about freeing women, freeing their imagination, their wisdom, their energy, and their intense interest in improving the lives of their families—freeing a so-far under-utilized feminine force in economic and social development.

Besides, getting at the problems that plague women often offers a double payoff. When women die prematurely or suffer the many deprivations of poverty, their children are victimized right alongside them. Every additional year of a mother's education corresponds to 5 to 10 percent lower mortality rates in children under 5, and when women are offered equal economic opportunities, it is often their children who enjoy the greatest advancements in the future.

Putting women—and by extension their children—first, it turns out, does a whole world of good.

By Kevin Clarke, senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the January 2006 (Volume 71, Number 1; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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