This past weekend, The New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted its entire issue to "Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of Our Time." Some very sober and powerful reading there—and not what you might think upon encountering a magazine with a title like that. In fact, these are real, global, and serious issues that should have the attention and ministry of Christians everywhere. More on that in a moment.
The lead feature was an excerpt from the forthcoming book by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn,a former Times correspondent who now works in finance and philanthropy. Here's a summary of the book, titled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide—one that includes an honest fact about abortion that I was stunned to read in a mainstream publication. This is a good indicator of the journalistic veracity of this book's research:
Traditionally, the status of women was seen as a "soft" issue—worthy but marginal. We initially reflected that view ourselves in our work as journalists. We preferred to focus instead on the "serious" international issues, like trade disputes or arms proliferation. Our awakening came in China.
After we married in 1988, we moved to Beijing to be correspondents for The New York Times. Seven months later we found ourselves standing on the edge of Tiananmen Square watching troops fire their automatic weapons at pro-democracy protesters. The massacre claimed between 400 and 800 lives and transfixed the world; wrenching images of the killings appeared constantly on the front page and on television screens.
Yet the following year we came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that outlined a human rights violation that had claimed tens of thousands more lives. This study found that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because parents didn't give them the same medical care and attention that boys received—and that was just in the first year of life. A result is that as many infant girls died unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square. Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.
A similar pattern emerged in other countries. In India, a "bride burning" takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry—but these rarely constitute news. When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn't even consider it news.
Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. "More than 100 million women are missing," Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for "missing women" of between 60 million and 107 million.
Girls vanish partly because they don't get the same health care and food as boys. In India, for example, girls are less likely to be vaccinated than boys and are taken to the hospital only when they are sicker. A result is that girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys their age. In addition, ultrasound machines have allowed a pregnant woman to find out the sex of her fetus—and then get an abortion if it is female.
The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine "gendercide" far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.
These are shocking, sinful statistics. They must be challenged and changed. For that reason, I am very grateful for the journalistic efforts of Kristof and WuDunn. For the same reason, I was also very grateful for the attention Secretary Clinton brought to the status of women in Africa during her visit last week.
But having researched the history of feminism in the Western world for my own book, I am also reminded of the course of our women's history. In many ways, though perhaps not as extreme, we issued the same complaints. Women in the 19th century complained of men making the same poor financial expenditures on alcohol and prostitutes, that women didn't have equality in education, and that maternal health was a neglected medical priority.
But as women fought for equality, we found the fight remained long after the battles were won. Because men were identified as the problem, the gender war has never been fully resolved. Instead of unifying marriages and families, this ongoing battle continues to fracture them. So my concern is that we will import some of these same values into our efforts to help women around the world.
In fact, the opening illustration of Kristof and WuDunn's article illustrates this perfectly. It is about a Pakistani couple where the husband is sinning terribly against his wife by beating her and otherwise neglecting her. She is in despair until she receives a microfinance loan, which enables her to set up a small embroidery business. Soon she is the village business mogul, able to employ many others and pay off her husband's debts. He no longer beats her because she is too valuable, and he has come around to the view that girls are just as good as boys.
And that's where the story ends. Yay … but only half a yay, really. He stopped beating her, but where is the true partnership? Where is the true repentance? Only the gospel can address sin and redemption. Economic parity can't be the ultimate solution because it can't address the heart issues. And this brings me back to why I think Christians need to be involved. If we preach equality because it's found on page one of the Bible, then we should be leading the charge in this area. But our solutions will be different because our end goals are different. Yes, we want to empower women. Yes, we want women to be educated. Yes, we want families to be healthier and more prosperous. But we don't want to do this by lifting up one person in the family at the expense of another. We have to help men change, too, by preaching the gospel and teaching them to truly apply the Ephesians 5 mandate to love their wives as Christ loved the church—without concern for cultural practices or restrictions. They must fear God and his Word more than the opinions of other men and the way things are done in their culture.
As Christians, we have an opportunity here to help families around the world by both standing against incredible injustice against women and by preaching the gospel of reconciliation. Let's not lose any ground to lesser solutions.