Women’s International Rights
Many countries, including the United States, have made great strides in providing equal rights for women in the last fifty years. Some, like the United States, caught on early and ensured equal rights as early as the 1950’s or 60’s. Others have just recently begun to evaluate old, antiquated policies that make women second-class citizens. The main problems that still exist for women throughout the word are: 1) many women still aren’t allowed reproductive freedom; 2) some women find that their “official” employment rights differ from traditional, “unofficial” practices; 3) spousal abuse is still prominent and ignored by law enforcement officials, as are most cases of sex trafficking. Women throughout the world have a long way to go before they are ensured the same rights as men.
A woman’s most essential right is to be allowed control over her body and over her reproductive rights. Until 1973, women in the United States could not undergo an abortion legally; many had to resort to illegal and dangerous procedures in unsanitary environments. It was only fifty years previously that women were finally permitted to receive information about birth control in the United States. While the debate in this country revolves around preventing abortion and welcoming children regardless of how they were conceived, other countries prefer to prevent the birth of as many female babies as possible.
Brazil has an extremely high fertility rate among nonwhite women. They also have one of the highest rates of female sterilization (once again, for nonwhites) throughout the world. Even though the sterilization is not mandated by the government, one can easily find that the government is indeed the cause. Many poor, black women in Brazil cannot afford the cost of contraceptive pills, as the cost is in no way subsidized by the government. A nonwhite Brazilian woman’s choices are simple: give birth to a series of children who are unlikely to survive infancy, or undergo sterilization. There is no education about birth control, spacing children apart so that they are less of a financial burden, or even of the old-fashioned “rhythm method”.
As stated by Gwen Anderson in Globalizing Feminist Bioethics: Crosscultural Perspectives,
I claim that sterilization is a “choice” for those without choices, an expression of despair for those who do not want or cannot find a solution for sexuality without liberty or for an unhappy life with economic and emotional problems.
“A choice for those without choices” simply means that these women have no choice at all.
This is also the case for Chinese women, where the government not only recommends family planning, but mandates it though their “one child per couple policy”. This policy has caused expectant couples to obtain ultrasounds in order to determine the sex of the child. Females are most often aborted in favor of trying for a boy. While the government frowns on this practice, it is widespread throughout the smaller cities and villages. The policy of having only one child is enforced through a very specific system of rewards and punishments.
Rewards for Compliance:Punishments for Non-Compliance:Preferential housingFinesAdditional medical benefitsConfiscation of propertyEducational benefits/financial assistanceSalary cuts/job lossNo citizenship for additional children
The ordinance that governs family planning states:
Fertile couples must use reliable birth control according to the provisions. In case of pregnancies in default of the plan, measures must be taken to terminate them.
(China Human Rights Fact Sheet)
Worse, still, is the treatment of female infants, who are subject to many horrors, including infanticide, abandonment or concealment from the government. Many of the females who are in orphanages are physically or mentally disabled. An individual who is not registered with the government can find it difficult to receive medical care, education or to become employed.
Similar treatment occurs for female infants in Afghanistan. The birth of a female child is cause for mourning, not celebration. The degradation of women in Afghanistan began on September 27, 1996, when the Taliban took control. Before that time, women worked as teachers, doctors, and for the government. The Taliban prevented women from having any rights. Women who went to work on September 28th, 1996, were told to return home. As a result of being made second-class citizens, women now have a lower life expectancy than men, due to an unequal allocation of resources: men have priority in food and medical treatment, and prenatal care is not considered to be a priority (Brodsky, 37).
Russia’s government has, for many years, subsidized birth control for its female citizens, including both contraception and abortion. As this practice has led to declining birth rates, the government is no longer willing to pay for it. In addition, they have passed what they consider to be “pro-family” laws. The first is to ban women from 400 professions that are considered harmful to one’s general health and to a woman’s reproductive health in particular. Additional legislation lists acceptable jobs by gender, thus limiting a woman’s options.
The largest and most tragic epidemic throughout the world is that of female mutilation. Intended as a means to keep women frigid and thus monogamous, it has been practiced since the time of Ancient Egypt. It is considered a cultural practice as there is no religious or regional law that demands it. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is described as:
a partial clitoridectomy to a full excision of the clitoris, labia minora, and majora followed by infibulation (the stitching of the vulva leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual blood).
This mutilation is performed among some Muslim communities, but is far more prominent in Africa. The procedure, which is performed in unsanitary conditions entirely without anesthesia, can result in infection and lifelong pain. A young woman who has undergone this mutilation is considered to have “come of age” and is ready for marriage.
Amnesty International considers this practice to be a human rights violation and, as part of its mission, seeks to educate women worldwide and ban the practice. The problem with banning it is twofold; 1) Some feel that this practice falls under the category of “group rights” for minority cultures; 2) one must look at the practice through cultural relativism, rather than imposing universal standards (the fact that it is performed on women by women makes it a potential “feminist” issue).
The women forced to undergo the mutilation, however, don’t see the practice the same way that Westerners see it. They have been told that this is the only way to be worthy of God and that their prayers won’t “take” if they don’t have the circumcision. Men often will not marry a woman unless he has been assured that she has been circumcised. This practice allows girls into a secret society (Arnfred, 84). With the advances made by Amnesty International and the World Health Organization (WHO), many women are being informed of just how unnecessary the procedure truly is, and many are electing not to force it upon their daughters. Others are unsure of how it fits in with their religious beliefs. A woman’s magazine in Egypt, Nisf Al Dunya, receives many letters from Egyptian women seeking advice about circumcising their daughters. “I have three daughters aged between seven and nine,” wrote one reader. “I am unsure whether I am ordered by Islam to circumcise.” (Ezzat) While many governments have outlawed the practice, it simply cannot be enforced as women who want to have their daughters circumcised are not going to report it to the authorities.
Many countries justify the discrimination of women in the workplace by applying the following six standards:
Ø component wage: women are seen as secondary earners or that they have access to other funds;
Ø powerful employer: a woman has too many domestic responsibilities to be effective in the workplace;
Ø weak representation: women have no voice and no bargaining power;
Ø job segregation: the belief that there are jobs for women and different jobs for men;
Ø social value: certain occupations are worth more wages;
Ø social hierarchies: systems put in place to ensure continued male dominance;
(International Labour Review)
These “standards” put in place a system that is difficult for women to overcome. Employers do not consider that some women are the head of the household for whatever reason, or that their domestic responsibilities must take a back seat to making money to support the family. Some communities restrict jobs based on the reproductive health on women, though they are most likely just reserving the higher paid jobs for men.
While many countries have allowed for equal rights for women, many of these countries do not enforce the law. In China, laws were passed in 1980 and 1996 to prevent discrimination of Chinese women in the workplace. Unfortunately, these measures have not succeeded. Many employers refuse to hire women because of the additional costs of benefits that they would need to provide for pregnant women, nursing mothers and their children. Many such employers will advertise their jobs specifically for men only, as they are looking for educated employees. As females have less access to education (their fathers see no reason to pay for education when they will eventually get married and belong to someone else), they find it much more difficult to find work (Tsui). This explains why women make up 60% of the total unemployed, and why they earn only 77% of what men earn in China (Amnesty International).
The employment circumstances for Russian women are just as dire, as the unemployment rate is 60% to 90%, depending on the province (Rhein). Social norms demand that women stay home and raise their children, but when abandoned by their husbands, the women are left with little choice. During President Gorbachev’s reign, he insisted that a good woman would participate in childbearing and homemaking and stay out of the public sphere (Rhein). Such a declaration made it difficult for women to subsequently return to the workplace. Much like China, women earn far less than men (40%) and are fired much more frequently. While women in the United States cannot be discriminated against due to pregnancy or the possibility of becoming pregnant, Russian women do not have the same protection of unemployment, though they do have protection once they’re hired. Due to the specification of acceptable jobs for women, they are often excluded from well-paying jobs that include good benefits and a retirement plan.
According to a member of the department of employment in Moscow,
Special regulations available only to women – extended paid maternity leave, vacation time when children are small, and sick child leave – make women noncompetitive as employees. (Rhein)
This kind of discrimination takes place in private industries, of which there are more, now that Russia is no longer a communist nation. The problem is that the government condones discriminatory practices, which include:
Transferring new mothers to “phantom” departments where they have no duties and no salary;Require women to take extended holidays without pay or at minimum wage;They are kept on an employer’s registry in order to avoid paying into the social services system, regardless of whether or not she is actually employed.Unfortunately, the more the government enforces laws to protect women in the workplace, the more the employers find ways around it. The laws appear to exist in a vacuum where they are not enforced and sanctions are not levied against those employers who violate the laws.
Chinese culture emphasizes nonviolence and harmony; in spite of this, they have a high rate of spousal abuse. Historically, two Confucian guidelines have been thought to lead to such abuse:
1. A woman must obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage,
and her son after the death of the husband;
2. Women must embody these four virtues: morality, proper speech, modest manners and diligent work.
Following those guidelines, Chinese women have been abused in many ways throughout history, including the practice of foot-binding, forcing children to marry old men, and forced prostitution throughout China The lack of social services in China makes it difficult for women to get help; and the reluctance to prosecute unless there is evidence of serious injury or death doesn’t help. Exacerbating the problem is the government’s insistence of families staying together in spite of any violence that goes on.
The abuse of women in Afghanistan isn’t limited to a spouse or to male members of a family. When the Taliban took over and eradicated the rights of women, they ensured that any man had the right to punish any woman. Spousal abuse is widespread and there are few laws to prevent it. Women who report abuse to the police aren’t protected; rather, they’re told to go home and return to their abusive husbands. As there are no shelters available for these women, they have no choice but to return home. Spousal rape is not considered a crime as a husband as an absolute right to his wife’s body at any time. Most frightening is that a rapist may avoid prosecution if he agrees to marry his victim. (Human Rights Watch)
Worse yet are the laws that protect men and keep women from leaving their husbands.
Women are routinely denied custody of their children and are subject to serious fines if they wish to divorce their husbands. These fines often include repayment of a dowry. The violence doesn’t just come from their husbands or male members of their families; women in the middle east can be attacked by any man for violating any rule, such as showing a bit of ankle, wearing noisy shoes, or in any way drawing attention to herself when she is in public.
Russian women are having similar abuse problems. Spousal abuse is against the law, but much like employment discrimination, it is not enforced. Amnesty International has taken up the cause of abused Russian women, and is working with the Russian government and other human rights organizations in order to increase the numbers of women who report it so they can eventually put a stop to it. Many women endure beatings and spousal rape at the hands of their husbands with no recourse. Often, if the matter is reported to the police, the husband is taken in for questioning, released for lack of evidence, and is free to beat his wife once again. Prosecutors avoid having to deal with the cases by failing to notify the wife that the trial has begun. (Amnesty International)
Sex Trafficking: the Final Frontier
As if women in foreign countries hadn’t suffered enough indignities, they are also subject to being forced into prostitution and sold as sex slaves. In certain parts of China, women are frequently sold as brides or into prostitution. The government claims to have enacted laws to prevent this practice, but there is no evidence to support it. Men who purchase women as wives are not prosecuted; on the contrary, the marriages are registered legally. Many Chinese women are taken to Australia where they are promised legal work but are trapped in brothels where they must pay back their purchase price.
In Burma, girls and young women are often stolen from villages and forced to prostitute themselves in fishing villages, truck stops and mining camps while others are sent out of the country. Prosecution is hindered by the fact that the government of Burma does not comply with the standards set for preventing sex trafficking and prosecuting the offenders. It might be difficult for them to do so as they often forcibly enlist children into their army.
Little can be done about the birth control policies of many countries. They begin as a government edict but often end up a cultural tradition. Many governments, however, are making strides in ensuring that women have equal rights in the workplace. Russia is making progress, but that progress is slow.
The issue of spousal abuse has been taken up by Amnesty International, which reports that Russia has over forty-five “Stop Violence” organizations throughout Russia who are working with local law enforcement to detect, prevent and prosecute spousal abuse. They have yet to recognize the problem as a human rights issue, however. They are working with other governments, such as China, Sierra Leone and
Many countries are working with Amnesty International and the United States government to prevent and stop sex trafficking. Australia’s government increased enforcement of trafficking laws in order to prevent new incidents from occurring. They recognize that they need to communicate with other countries to in order to prevent and scrutinize trafficking. Government officials signed agreements with Cambodia, Burma, Laos, and Thailand to ensure that trafficking would be investigated and that other countries would cooperate with these investigations. They recognize as well that there are organized groups that perpetrate sex trafficking and these groups need to be brought down in order to have any hope of putting a stop to it. The government funds awareness campaigns in countries where children and women are being taken. They have increased awareness to tourists of the child sex tourism problem. Most importantly, Australia will cooperate with any extradition proceedings that emanate from the capture of sex traffickers or pedophiles.
The subjugation of women was a long process, dating back to ancient times where civilizations still believed in polytheism and that women controlled the sex of a child. Therefore, the process of undoing these antiquated ideas may take years, but every step brings the world closer to having equal rights for everyone.
Brodsky, Anne E. With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. New York: Routledge, 2003.
China Human Rights Fact Sheet. Mar 1995. Amnesty International. 4 Nov 2006 <http://www.christusrex.org/www1/sdc/hr_facts.html#Woman>.
Kalev, Henriette Dahan. “Cultural Rights or Human Rights: The Case of Female Genital Mutilation.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research (2004): 339+.
“The Minimum Wage as a Tool to Combat Discrimination and Promote Equality.” International Labour Review 142.4 (2003): 543+.
Rhein, Wendy. “The Feminization of Poverty: Unemployment in Russia.” Journal of International Affairs 52.1 (1998): 351.
Tong, Rosemarie, Gwen Anderson, and Aida Santos. Globalizing Feminist Bioethics: Crosscultural Perspectives. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001.
Tsui, Ming. “Managing Transition: Unemployment and Job Hunting in Urban China.” Pacific Affairs 75.4 (2002): 515+.
(2004 Jun 14). Country narratives. Retrieved November 5, 2006, from US Department of State Web site: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2004/33191.htm
Xu, Xiaohe. “The Prevalence and Determination of Wife Abuse in Urban China.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 28.3 (1997): 280+.