The worth of a woman - A reflection on International Women's Day

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

“None of us is equal until all of us is equal”

“Women are not making it to the top. A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 per cent are women. In the corporate sector, [the share of] women at the top—C-level jobs, board seats—tops out at 15, 16 percent.” 
… Sheryl Sandberg
Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day.

( March 8, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) We have had a terrible past year. The gang-rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old student in Mumbai, led to a global outcry against the brutalization of women and girls. Another tragic story that made international news was the attack on Malala Yousufzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for saying girls should have the right to education. This is in addition to regular violence against women in Congo, the fight by women in Russia for the adoption of laws against domestic violence, and child marriage and imprisonment of women’s rights activists elsewhere.

My little observation has exposed me to the fact that, most women double as wives and breadwinners as well. From dawn to dusk, most women are on the move just to provide the basic necessities of life for their family. My question is, do these women get appreciated or acknowledged for their contribution?
From its inception, the United Nations has recognized that there is discrimination against women in the world. This is a fact and no one can deny it. There is also wide spread abuse of women and violence committed against them in many parts of the world (reportedly 7 out of 10 women are subjected to this terror), but that is another story best left for another time. The UN story starts with Article 3 of its Charter (signed in 1945) which states that the fundamental aim of the Charter is to achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

One of the first tasks of the United Nations was to establish, through its Economic and Social Council, a Commission on the Status of Women, as the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, … birth or other status.

In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is an International Bill of Rights for Women. The Convention defines discrimination against women as “...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

In its 30 articles, the Convention sets up an agenda for national action to end discrimination against women, by focusing on culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations, and it is the first human rights treaty to affirm the reproductive rights of women.

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, in her message for International Women’s Day, has called on the international community to deliver on their commitments and to protect women’s right to live free of violence.

Although the above discussion is of the most fundamental importance, much has been said, and hopefully done about it. This article is more about the value, worth and equality of women. International Women’s Day should also be about recognizing women for who they are and not only for what they are subjected to.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a woman who held one of the top jobs in Washington before which she was a law professor at Princeton, a woman who left a position of power to be with her family, in her article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in the Atlantic says : “It’s time to stop fooling ourselves,: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed”.

Slaughter says, quite correctly that there are still real barriers and obstacles for women in the working place. “Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have. And although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have shown that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men.

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone”.

Anne-Marie Slaughter speaks of opportunities, or lack thereof at the workplace for women. It is also opportune to speak of their worth.

Nicholas D. Kristoff, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times has said: “women are more likely to invest money or assets in their children or small business, and men are more likely to spend on instant gratification, like alcohol, cigarettes, prostitution”. Kristoff goes on to add: “In any 10-year period, more girls are discriminated against to death than all of the people who died in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

According to the Cosmopolitan, a study done by the University of Georgia and Columbia University has found that women learn better than men do. They are more attentive, flexible and open their minds further than do men. According to a study of IQs from around the world, women have higher IQs than men. Researcher James Flynn checked out the IQs of people from the U.S., Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Argentine, and Estonia, and found that women came out on top. A study from San Diego State University of offices across the U.S. found that men’s desks and offices have more germs than women's. Researchers discovered that men had anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent more bacteria in their workspaces than women—and scientists say it's because they tend to be less hygienic. And here’s a good one: A recent study has revealed that women are getting better looking through evolution; meanwhile, men are staying the same. After following more than 2,000 people through four decades of life, the study showed that attractive women had 16 per cent more children than average-looking chicks and that beautiful people are 36 per cent more likely to have a daughter as their firstborn. All those gorgeous daughters mean more beautiful women than in past generations.

It could be that we measure a woman’s worth through our understanding of ancient writings and practices. According to the Bible, a woman is worth about half as much as a man. “And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver.... And if it be a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels. And if it be from five years old even unto twenty years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels”. Leviticus 27:3-7.

Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera says: “the social attitude towards women in pre-Buddhist days can be traced from the early Vedic literature, such as the Rigveda. There is evidence indicating the honor and respect which women received in their homes. In the realm of religion, too, they had access to the highest knowledge of the Absolute or Brahma. However, such a liberal attitude towards women changed with the course of time, under the influence and dominance of the priestly caste with their priestcrafts, animal sacrifices, and other ritualistic practices. New interpretations were given to the scriptures. Women came to be considered as greatly inferior to men - both physically and mentally.

A woman was looked down upon as a mere possession or a thing. Her place was the home, under the complete whims and fancies of her husband. She not only had to perform all the domestic chores, but also had to bring up a large family. Some of the priestly caste Brahmins married and lived with their wives, yet regarded food cooked by women as impure and unfit to eat. A myth was built up - that all women were regarded as sinful and the only way to keep them out of mischief was to keep them endlessly occupied with the task of motherhood and domestic duties”.

The statement which grabbed me the most was about the women of Ghana, made in November 2011 by the Honorable Betty Mould-Iddrisu, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General. “The contribution of women in our society cannot be over emphasized. The role they play in paying their national dues is worth applauding. In my opinion, women carry the bread basket of the country. No matter how minute their effort is, we cannot write it off.

My little observation has exposed me to the fact that, most women double as wives and breadwinners as well. From dawn to dusk, most women are on the move just to provide the basic necessities of life for their family. My question is, do these women get appreciated or acknowledged for their contribution? The most recent Volta Lake disaster recorded a high percentage of women with their children strapped to their back who lost their lives, “carrying the bread basket of their family.” They were coming from the market, which is a routine chore. What will women not do just to keep their family going?”

International Women’s Day should also be about recognizing the worth of women. They are compassionate and adaptable. They motivate those around them, be they friends or family, co-workers or bosses. They glue families together and serve as the link between a father and his children. Let’s see men do these things.

Happy International Women’s Day.