making a difference

I’d like you to take a look at this TED talk by Sheryl WuDunn on the subject of “Our century’s greatest injustice”, which is about gender inequity:
50-100 million missing women in the current world population. That’s gendercide.

Ms. WuDunn has written a book with her husband Nicholas D. Kristof called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which addresses the same issue as this talk. Although, I was rather saddened to see that there is a chapter in the book entitled “Is Islam Misogynistic?”

Based on my research the dogmas of most religions in the world are anti-female. When I was 16-years-old it became evident to me that because I was a woman the religion I was raised in – Catholicism – had no interest in my opinion.

Right, I thought, To hell with that! I’m not going to part of a church that has historically and doctrinally demonstrated so little regard for women.

In fact, it was one of my many problems with Catholicism, but that one was the most personal to me. So we parted ways and I’ve remained areligious ever since. From my research most of the big religions – if you scratch deep enough – exhibit an underlying fear of women and a desire to control them. Of course, not all religions are the same, and I’m always pleased to hear reports of the progressive varieties.

At its best religion can offer people a place to search for deeper meaning, go through rites of passage, find solace and forge community, especially if they have children, so I don’t disrespect people who turn to religion. I know devout men and women who are intelligent, articulate, care for others and work for change in their religious communities.

Singling out Islam is an unnecessary element in WuDunn and Kristof’s treatise. (For a better exegesis of the matter read Martha Nussbaum‘s New York Times review of the book). It’s a divisive issue that will take away from the importance of their main message.

For a really harrowing – but important – read, check out Robert Fisk’s recent article on honour killing called: “The crimewave that shames the world“. Fisk repeatedly gives examples of women killed to save the “honour” of a father/brother/tribe from many religions. Lots of doctrines state that it’s permissible to kill a woman that steps out of line. Let’s not be smug that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in our part of the world. Just who do you think women are being trafficked to from developing countries? Sex slavery happens in every major city in the western world.

If you are interested in women’s rights – as I am – it’s important to be interested in every woman’s rights. No matter their class, colour, creed, sexuality, physical ability or shape. I always find it difficult when I’m faced with a general issue about which I’m passionate, and then discover there’s a lurking element of disregard for the experiences of some of those involved.

For instance, today I got a link to this video, which for is a campaign called The Girl Effect for which I have broad approval:

But… and I can’t help my reservation about this, I have an issue with the video’s implicit assumption that a woman’s manifest destiny is to marry and have children.

First, perhaps some of these women are gay (in which case they can’t marry another woman in most countries – including Ireland). Maybe, some of them want to have children outside of matrimony. And most revolutionary: maybe some of them don’t want to bear children at all.

It’s a powerful animation and a good general message, which is why this kind of blind spot bothers me. Too often women are only described in their roles as wives or mothers. It wouldn’t take a lot to tweak that video into something better. To emphasis the right of every woman to be educated, loved, and supported because that is her right as a person. We need to be more inclusive in our messages.

So, recently I was pondering all of these issues, and feeling terribly overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem and the horrors some women face around the world. I’ve always believed in the power of collective action, and of doing something positive, no matter how small.

I’ve been aware of Plan International for a long time, and had constantly thought I should sponsor a child. As it happens Plan has been running a “Because I’m a Girl” campaign for three years now, gathering information and experiences from the girls in developing countries. I’d recommend reading their 2010 report, which is full of clear insights and stories about the problems girls face.

Just last week Plan Ireland started up a ‘Because I am a Girl‘ blog, which interviews various Irish women about their experiences and hopes.

Plan Ireland has assigned me and my husband a twelve-year-old Hindu girl in India to sponsor. I don’t say this to elicit approbation. My actions are not praiseworthy, but necessary. I can’t save the world, but I can help this girl.

I’ve also signed up for Kiva, a non-profit micro-financing organisation that puts lenders in touch with people from the developing world who need to borrow small amounts of money. You can join a community on Kiva, and much to my delight there is a group on Kiva called ‘Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious’.

A lot of the entrepreneurs on Kiva are women attempting to improve their lives, and the lives of their families, using innovation and determination. For the price of two lunches I can contribute to helping people improve their lives.

Each of us can make a difference in this world. We just need to figure out how.

But please, do it.

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