IN West Africa a businessman buys a nine-year-old child. In Asia a newborn baby is buried alive in the desert sand. In an Oriental country, a toddler starves to death in an orphanage—unwanted and unattended. One common denominator linked these tragedies: All the victims were girls. Their being female meant that they were considered dispensable.
These are not isolated cases. In Africa thousands of girls and young women are sold into slavery, some for as little as $15. And it is reported that each year hundreds of thousands of young girls are sold or forced into prostitution, mostly in Asia. Worse still, population figures for a number of countries indicate that as many as 100 million girls are “missing.” This is evidently due to the abortion, infanticide, or sheer neglect of females.
For a long time—centuries—females have been viewed this way in many lands. And in some places they still are. Why? Because in such lands, a greater value is placed on boys. There, it is felt that a boy can continue the family line, inherit property, and take care of parents when they get old, as often these lands do not have any government pension for the aged. An Asian saying alleges that “raising a girl is like watering a plant in your neighbour’s garden.” When she grows up, she will leave to get married or may even be sold into prostitution and thus be of little or no help in caring for aged parents.
In countries plagued by poverty, this attitude means less food, less health care, and less schooling for the girls of the family. Researchers in one Asian country found that 14 percent of the girls were malnourished, compared with only 5 percent of the boys. In some countries twice as many boys as girls are brought to health centers, explains a report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). And over 40 percent of the young women in Africa as well as in southern and western Asia are illiterate. “There is a dreadful apartheid of gender going on in the developing world,” lamented the late Audrey Hepburn, former UNICEF ambassador.
This “apartheid of gender” does not disappear when the girls reach adulthood. Poverty, violence, and unrelenting toil are all too often a woman’s lot, precisely because she is a woman. The president of the World Bank explained: “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work. . . . Yet they earn only one-tenth of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. They are among the poorest of the world’s poor.”
According to a United Nations report, more than 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people of the world who live in dire poverty are women. “And it is getting worse,” the report added. “The number of rural women living in absolute poverty rose by nearly 50% over the past two decades. Increasingly, poverty has a woman’s face.”
Even more traumatic than the grinding poverty is the violence that wrecks the lives of so many women. An estimated one hundred million girls, mainly in Africa, have suffered genital mutilation. Rape is a widespread abuse that remains almost undocumented in some areas, although studies indicate that in some lands 1 woman in 6 is raped during her lifetime. Wars afflict men and women alike, but most of the refugees forced to flee from their homes are women and children.
Mothers and Providers
The burden of caring for the family often rests more heavily on the mother. She likely works longer hours and may well be the only provider. In some rural areas of Africa, nearly half the families are headed by women. In some localities in the Western world, a significant proportion of families are headed by the female.
Furthermore, especially in developing countries, women traditionally handle some of the most laborious jobs, such as fetching water and firewood. Deforestation and overgrazing have made these tasks much more difficult. In some drought-plagued countries, women spend three or more hours every day searching for firewood and four hours a day fetching water. Only when this drudgery is done can they begin to do the work that is expected of them in the home or on the land.
Obviously, both men and women suffer in countries where poverty, hunger, or strife is the daily fare. But women suffer disproportionately. Will this situation ever change? Are there any real prospects that one day women everywhere will be treated with respect and consideration? Is there anything women can do now to improve their lot?
Girl Prostitutes—Who Is to Blame?
Every year an estimated one million children—mostly girls—are forced or sold into prostitution. Araya, who comes from Southeast Asia, recalls what happened to some of her classmates. “Kulvadee became a prostitute when she was only 13. She was a nice girl, but her mother often got drunk and used to play poker, so she had no time to care for her daughter. Kulvadee’s mother encouraged her to earn money by going out with men, and before long, she was working as a prostitute.
“Sivun, another pupil in my class, came from the north of the country. She was just 12 when her parents sent her to the capital to work as a prostitute. She had to work for two years to pay off the contract signed by her parents. Sivun and Kulvadee are not unusual—5 out of the 15 girls in my class became prostitutes.”
There are millions of youngsters like Sivun and Kulvadee. “The sex industry is a huge market with its own momentum,” laments Wassyla Tamzali, of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). “Selling a 14-year-old girl has become so commonplace, it is banal.” And once these girls are sold into sexual slavery, paying off their purchase price may prove almost impossible. Manju, whose father sold her when she was 12, still owed $300 (U.S.) after seven years of prostitution. “There was nothing I could do—I was trapped,” she explains.
Escaping AIDS may be nearly as difficult for the girls as escaping the pimps who enslave them. A survey conducted in Southeast Asia indicated that 33 percent of these child prostitutes were infected with the AIDS virus. As long as the five-billion-dollar prostitution industry flourishes, it is likely that these girls will continue to suffer.
Who is to blame for this horrendous practice? Obviously, those who buy or sell girls into prostitution bear a huge part of the blame. But also to be condemned are the despicable men who use the girls to satisfy sexual lusts. For without such practicers of immorality, the prostitution of these girls would not exist. Each year about a million young girls are forced into prostitution.
A Woman’s Workday in Central Africa
The woman rises at six o’clock and prepares breakfast for the family and for herself, which they will eat at midmorning. After fetching water from the nearby river, she heads for her plot of land—it may be an hour’s walk away.
Until about four o’clock in the afternoon, she tills, weeds, or waters the land, stopping only briefly to eat whatever food she has taken with her. The two remaining hours of daylight are used to cut firewood and to collect cassava or other vegetables for the family—all of which she carries home.
Usually, she arrives home as the sun is setting. Now there is work to be done preparing the supper, a task that may occupy two hours or more. Sundays are spent washing clothes in the local river and then ironing, once the clothes are dry.
Her husband rarely appreciates all this hard work or listens to her suggestions. He doesn’t mind cutting down the trees or burning the forest underbrush so that she can prepare the land for planting, but he does little more. Occasionally, he takes the children to the river to wash themselves, and he may do a little hunting and fishing. But much of his day is spent talking with other menfolk of the village.
If the husband can afford it, after a few years, he will bring home a new, younger wife, who will become the center of his affection. His first wife, however, will still be expected to keep working as always, until her health fails or she dies. African women bear a heavy work load.
So what Does the Future Hold for Women?
“THE history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” Thus read the Seneca Falls, New York, Declaration of Sentiments, penned in America 150 years ago as a protest against injustice toward women.
Progress has undoubtedly been made since then, but as the United Nations publication The World’s Women 1995 states, there is still a long way to go. “Too often, women and men live in different worlds,” it reports, “worlds that differ in access to education and work opportunities, and in health, personal security and leisure time.”
Increased awareness of this has led nations to pass laws to protect the rights of women. But laws cannot change hearts, where the roots of injustice and prejudice lie. For example, consider the plight of girl prostitutes. Newsweek said of this international disgrace: “Legislation aimed at stopping the sexual exploitation of children is well meaning but often ineffectual.” Similarly, law itself does not prevent violence. “Evidence reveals violence against females to be a widespread global problem,” states the Human Development Report 1995. “Most laws are inadequate for stopping such violence—unless present cultural and social values change.”—Italics ours.
“Cultural and social values” are usually based on deep-seated tradition—a hard nut to crack. “Tradition makes men believe that women should be used rather than loved, worked rather than cared for,” says a woman from the Middle East. “As a result, a woman has no voice, no rights, and little chance to improve her situation.”
Educating Husbands and Fathers
The Platform for Action proposed in Beijing, China, by a 1995 world conference on women declared that only “immediate and concerted action by all” can achieve a “peaceful, just and humane world” in which women will be respected.
Any action to make women’s lives more ‘peaceful, just, and humane’ must begin at home, with husbands and fathers. In this regard, Jehovah’s Witnesses are convinced that Bible education is the key to success. They have seen that once men learn that God expects them to treat their wives and daughters with respect and consideration, they take it to heart and do it.
In Central Africa, Pedro, a married man with four children, is now attentive to the needs of his wife. He helps her look after the children, and he even serves the meal when guests eat with the family. Such a considerate attitude is most unusual in his country. What makes him appreciate his wife and cooperate with her?
“When I began to study the Bible, I learned two important principles regarding the role of the husband,” Pedro explains. “They have had a big impact on the way I view my wife. The first, at 1 Peter 3:7, explains that a husband should give his wife honor as the “weaker vessel, the feminine one.” The second, at Ephesians 5:28, 29, says that a husband should treat his wife ‘as his own body.’ Since I have followed that advice, we have become much closer. So we men must attach greater value to God’s counsel than to local customs.”
Michael, from West Africa, admits that before he began studying the Bible with the Witnesses, he did not treat his wife properly. “I even used to hit her when I got angry,” he confesses. “But the Bible taught me that I should change my ways. I now try very hard to control my temper and to love my wife as my own body. And we are both much happier.” (Colossians 3:9, 10, 19) His wife, Comfort, concurs: “Now Michael treats me with more respect and affection than is the custom of most husbands in our community. We can talk about our problems and work together as a team.”
Pedro and Michael learned to respect and cherish their wives because they took to heart the instructions from God’s Word, which makes it clear that injustice to women deeply displeases our Creator.
God’s Concern for Women
God has always been concerned about women and their welfare. Although he told our first parents that because of their rebellion, imperfection would lead to women being ‘dominated,’ this was never God’s purpose. (Genesis 3:16) He had created Eve as “a complement” of Adam and as a companion for him. (Genesis 2:18) In the Mosaic Law, given to ancient Israel, Jehovah specifically condemned the mistreatment of widows and instructed the Israelites to treat them kindly and help them.—Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 14:28, 29; 24:17-22.
Jesus, in imitation of his heavenly Father, did not follow the widespread tradition of his day that denigrated women. He spoke kindly to women—even those who had a bad reputation. (Luke 7:44-50) Moreover, Jesus was pleased to help women who had health problems. (Luke 8:43-48) On one occasion, when he saw a widow mourning the recent death of her only son, he immediately went up to the funeral procession and resurrected the young man.—Luke 7:11-15.
Women were among Jesus’ early disciples and were the first to witness his resurrection. The Bible speaks highly of women such as Lydia, Dorcas, and Prisca as examples of hospitality, compassion, and courage. (Acts 9:36-41; 16:14, 15; Romans 16:3, 4) And early Christians were trained to show women respect. The apostle Paul told his fellow missionary Timothy to treat “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters with all chasteness.”—1 Timothy 5:2.
Women Who Have Found Respect
If you are a Christian man, you will show that same respect toward women. You will never use tradition as an excuse for mistreating them. Respectful treatment of women, moreover, can give eloquent testimony to your faith. (Matthew 5:16) Salima, a young woman from Africa, describes how she benefited from observing Christian principles in action.
“I grew up in an environment where women and girls were treated badly. My mother worked 16 hours a day, but all she got were complaints if something was left undone. Worse still, my father would hit her when he drank too much. Other women in our area suffered likewise. But I knew such treatment was wrong—that it was filling our lives with frustration and unhappiness. Nevertheless, there seemed to be no way to change this state of affairs.
“When I was a teenager, however, I began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was very impressed when I read the words of the apostle Peter, who said that women should be treated with honor. But I thought, ‘It’s most unlikely that people would apply this counsel, especially in view of our local tradition.’
“However, when I went to the Kingdom Hall, where the Witnesses held their meetings, men as well as women treated me kindly. Even more surprising, the husbands among them really cared for their wives. As I got to know the people there better, I realized that this was something that all the Witnesses were expected to do. Although some of the men had come from backgrounds like mine, they were now treating women with respect. I wanted to belong to this large family.”
A Permanent Solution
The respect that Salima observed was not accidental. It was the result of a teaching program, based on God’s Word, that helps people to value one another as God does. This is an indication of what can be done even now and of what will be done everywhere when God’s Kingdom rules over all the earth. (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:10) This heavenly government will eliminate all injustice. The Bible assures us: “When there are judgments from you [Jehovah] for the earth, righteousness is what the inhabitants of the productive land will certainly learn.”—Isaiah 26:9.
Even now, education in righteousness is changing the way millions of people think. When all living humans are subject to God’s Kingdom, this education will continue earth wide and will end men’s oppressive treatment of women, a consequence of Adam’s sin. Jesus Christ, God’s appointed King, will not allow injustice toward women to mar his rule. Describing that rule of Christ, the Bible says: “He will deliver the poor one crying for help, also the afflicted one and whoever has no helper. He will feel sorry for the lowly one and the poor one, and the souls of the poor ones he will save. From oppression and from violence he will redeem their soul.”—Psalm 72:12-14.
This series of articles has concentrated on the problems of women. However, it is recognized that many men have also been treated badly. Throughout history powerful and evil men have committed unspeakable horrors against males as well as females. And some women have done the same. For instance, the Bible mentions the shedding of innocent blood by wicked women such as Jezebel, Athaliah, and Herodias.—1 Kings 18:4, 13; 2 Chronicles 22:10-12; Matthew 14:1-11.
Thus, all mankind needs God’s new world, under his Kingdom rule. Soon, when that day dawns, neither women nor men will ever again be discriminated against or treated badly. Instead, each day will be one of “exquisite delight” for everybody.—Psalm 37:11.