Friday, September 4, 2009

Half The Sky


The issue of forced marriages and domestic violence clearly struck a chord with many of the TLH readers. But somewhere deep in the comments over titles, or whether these are Sikh or Punjabi issues, or whether or not we should air our “dirty laundry” in the first place – I feel some of the issues themselves got lost.

In formulating my own thoughts on the topic and trying to build a broader perspective on women’s issues in general, I came across a fascinating article in last week’s New York Times Magazine called “Saving the World’s Women.” The premise of the article is that many of the countries that are disproportionately poverty-stricken and absorbed in fundamentalism and chaos, are also those same countries where women are the least educated and most marginalized. And by focusing (and investing) on women and girls, a dramatic impact can be made to fight global poverty and extremism.

Take the example of Saima Muhammad (pictured above) from Pakistan. Saima didn’t have a rupee to her name, was routinely beaten by her unemployed husband and other family members, and had to send her kids away due to lack of food and other basics. Even her mother-in-law contributed to her troubles by encouraging her son to marry again because Saima was only giving birth to girls. However, after Saima signed up with the Kashf Foundation, a Pakistani microfinance organization, things turned around.

Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt.
…Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.
As the economics of Saima’s situation changed, so did the relationship with her family. She now has a better relationship with her family and has earned their respect. It is unfortunate that this is what it took for Saima, and many will never have the golden opportunity Saima had, but it does send a clear message – that although it may seem impossible to break down cultural barriers, economics can change the game quickly.

The article explains case after case of how investment in women’s education and assistance in starting businesses can help impoverished women support their families, communities, and country – “They represent the best hope for fighting global poverty.”

Some of the author’s arguments seem a bit far-fetched based on their evidence. They claim that the “little secret” of global poverty has much to do with unwise spending by the poor-especially men, and that women are more likely to spend on family needs, health, and education more so than men. That could be debated at a family level, but a macro level, I feel we cannot realistically measure this until women hold more offices of power in these countries. But to be fair, this article was adapted from a book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide“, due to be released next month…perhaps I’ll be convinced after reading the full book.

What I liked most about the article was that it offered specific solutions and recommendations. It outlined an agenda on what “fighting poverty through helping women” might look like, based on studies by respected economists., more than just “throwing aid” to developing nations. It also explained models that have produced results in other countries. So you may be wondering…(and hopefully I’ll save a few angry responses)…what does this have to do with us? That’s simple:
- The UN has estimated that there are 5 million honor killings a year
- 130 million around the world have been subjected to genital cutting
- 1 percent of the world’s landowners are women
The list goes on and on…

This is not a Punjabi issue or a Sikh issue…this is a human issue. We know how our Gurus (through Bani & history) promoted gender equality, and one of the commenters last week beautifully laid out examples of courageous women throughout our history…from the stories of Mir Mannu’s prison to Mai Bhago and the women who fought alongside her. So if we are to be “activists of the world” why shouldn’t we be at the forefront of this cause? Shouldn’t our Sikh NGO’s work with President Obama’s new White House Council on Women and Girls? Shouldn’t our Sikh institutions partner with organizations like CARE, that works alongside poor women in fighting global poverty? And shouldn’t we create our own organizations that serve as a forum for discussion and activism both for global women’s issues and that of our local communities? And what about the author’s theory on how such focus can address global poverty…doesn’t that affect us? And even if we prefer to believe none of these issues currently affect our Sikh and Punjabi communities – given the proximity of where the article’s examples take place (several references to India and Pakistan) and similarities in culture, should we not be proactive in preventing it? Perhaps by implementing some of the recommendations the article suggests at a micro level, we can mitigate the issues discussed in previous posts on forced marriages and domestic violence.

I don’t believe there is any “silver-bullet” to addressing the issues above, but I’m glad to see TLH and its active readership discussing and debating them. As the Chinese saying goes, “Women hold up half the sky”…the issues affecting women cannot be silenced.

I look forward to hearing other’s thoughts and comments on the linked article!

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