In industrialized societies like the US, where institutions formally frown on gender violence, it still permeates our cultural fabric. Rap music insults women and calls us ‘whores’; men’s magazines, internet pornography and even mainstream advertising celebrate gang rape; and societal pressures, perhaps most dominant in women’s magazines, induce young women to starve themselves.
This is the implicit oppression of women that permeates our own culture. One recent study shows that women have 13 negative thoughts about their body each day and 97% of women admit to having at least one “I hate my body” moment every day. And we are teaching our girls to feel the same. How they hear us talk about our bodies directly affects what they think of their own bodies.
Our self-esteem is continually eroded not just in media but in the work place where we can’t even get equal pay for equal work. Right now women make 23-24% less than their male counterparts and this number has remained unchanged for last 15 years. A mere 23 of the Fortune 500 CEOs who are women. And what about those thermostats? After freezing in offices for decades we learn the temperature is set for the comfort of a 40-year-old 150 pound man!
Meanwhile, slavery is alive and well. 30 million women are now living in slavery. The term used these days is human trafficking. Every 30 seconds another person becomes a victim of human trafficking. Every year 800,000 girls and women are sold across international borders and 80% of those girls are sold into sexual slavery, many to work as slaves right here in the USA.
And then there is the overt violence practiced against women in our homeland. There have now been 26,000 reported military sexual assaults but only 1% are prosecuted because the commanding officer has the right to decide whether to prosecute a rapist or not, and many simply don’t want anyone to know that such an assault happened on their watch. 1 in 4 women in college will be sexually assaulted before she graduates. More than half of college campus rapes are committed by serial rapists where they can usually rape with impunity. 1 in 6 women will be the victim of a sexual assault and 60% of rapes in our country are never reported.
Do you see the progression and why everything we do has a consequence? NOW NYC created a triangle diagram. At the base is “jokes.” The next level is “language.” The nex is “images” followed by “verbal abuse” and ending at “rape.” Our jokes about women become the language we use to talk about women. The language we use shapes the images we create and display. The images make it that much easier to engage in verbal abuse. And our verbal attacks lead to violence and sexual attacks. This is why Donald Trump’s recent comments are not comic relief. They are not only offensive, they are outright dangerous.
These are just a few of the ways that society drives home the message that a woman’s life and dignity—her human rights—are worth less than a man’s. From the day of their birth, girls are devalued and degraded. The late UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant said women are trapped in what he called ‘the apartheid of gender.’
Long after slavery was abolished in most of the world, many societies still treat women like chattel: Their shackles are poor education, economic dependence, limited political power, limited access to birth control, harsh social conventions and inequality in the eyes of law. Violence is the key instrument used to keep these shackles in place.
Of course, today a women in our country can vote and own property. Since 1974 we could even get our own credit card! But even today in the land of the free there are strong efforts to control women’s behavior and to exercise ownership over their bodies by limiting their access to comprehensive sex education and birth control and punish them for the consequences of having engaged in sex. The attempts of legislators to impose draconian measures of control on female bodies is horrific.
Which begs the question of why? Why is this rhetoric tolerated at all? Sociologist Lisa Wade suggests a rather jarring reason – benevolent sexism. She describes this as the result of people attributing positive traits to women that nonetheless justify their subordination to men. For instance, “Women are beautiful and fragile; women are emotionally weak.” In other words, women need men to protect them – from other men and from themselves.
In his recent TED Talk, Former President Jimmy Carter shared his belief that one of the primary reasons abuses continue is that in general, “men don’t give a damn.” He claims that the average man that says “I am against the abuse of women and girls” quietly accepts their own position of privilege. And if the average man doesn’t care, it becomes exponentially difficult to get the majority of men who control the education system, the military system, the government and the great religions to care.
Which means it is up to us to become above average. ll of us live in a powerful nation where we have the freedom to speak and the freedom to act. We need to take the responsibility upon ourselves to be more demanding and to insist on ending discrimination against women and girls around the world.
Many women in many other countries have no say. But every women reading this can speak out, can talk to the husbands and men in their lives, can work to protect their children and grandchildren. It is up to each one of us to be a champion for women and girls around the world and protect their human rights.
It is up to each one of us to give at least one damn.
Copyright © 2015 Barbara Lee, All rights reserved.
19 Lafayette, Grand Haven, MI, United States