Happy International Women's Week! International Women's Day was Wednesday March 8, so today I am writing on the international women's rights movement.International women's issues are often forgotten as Western feminists work for our own advancement. What I think is truly important is to think globally in regards to feminism and women's rights.
The work of feminism is not done, as many Western women believe, resting back on their laurels of "having it all": career, family, marriage, home, political freedom, independence. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, women are sold by their own parents into sexual slavery, kidnapped and taken far from their homes to strange cities when they believe they will work in factories in order to send money home to their families. The sex tourism industry is a mutli-billion dollar business that caters primarily to Western men. Is this a by-product of the relative freedom of Western women – male frustration that leads to the sexual oppression of women in developing countries? True, prostitution exists the world over and is certainly not exclusive to the developing world, and young boys are often sold into prostitution as well, but the extent of female child sexual slavery in the developing world is excruciating. These child-women-prostitutes are sold into slavery while they are still virgins, and virgins command such a high price that Western men demand younger and younger girls in order to ensure they are getting what they pay for. Little do they know thatsome of these young children, after being sold into being raped by a man double to triple her size and brutalized to the point of vaginal bruising and tearing, are taken and sewn back up so that they can be raped again for another high "virgin" price. Women are too old for sex tourism prostitution when they are in their early twenties, and then usually go to work at a brothel or escape to the outskirts of cities where they can make a meagre living doing other women's work. The cost of sexual favours is terribly low, and the girls often have to "pay off their debts" – the cost that the pimp paid for her and the cost to house, clothe and feed her! It can take years before a young girl can make any money for herself, and then she must send money back home to support her younger siblings and her aging parents who sold her. Some of these girls are chained to beds in filthy basements where men pay to rape them for 10 minutes at a time. These girls never see the light of day. Mostly, the women are not permitted to use condoms to protect their health, although sometimes they are if the customer is unwilling to pay the extra $2-5 for unprotected sex. Why a man would want to have unprotected sex with a prostitute is beyond my scope of imagination, but that is beside the point. In some circumstances, the young women are given weekly health checks, to literally SEE if they have any visible signs of STDs. They are rarely given blood tests. If they do contract STDs, or HIV, they are sold until they are physically unwell and it is obvious to their customers that they are sick. After that, they are turned out and abandoned to die. You would think that protecting the young women's health would be seen as an investment on the part of their pimps. They would rather get more money for unprotected sex from their customers and have to reinvest in a new girl when the time comes. These young girls are disposable.
One of the most devestating international problems for women is genocidal rape. In countries torn by war, genocide is a growing movement. Wiping out the enemy is the chief goal of many wars in this age. From WWII, to the Croatian-Serbian conflict, to Rwanda, and now the Congo, genocidal war movements have killed millions of people and displaced millions more. War is always a time of terror for the people involved, but for women, the terror is two-fold. Not only are women killed alongside men, but increasingly women are kept alive and brutalized through rape. Male soldiers rape women in order to breed the unwanted race of people off the face of the earth; the children who are products of these acts of genocide are not seen as half-unwanted-race, but are considered to be a new race of people. In areas where it is not possible to terminate a pregnancy that is the result of rape, women are made into vessels for achieving the goals of their enemies and torturers. They are raped in front of their husbands, children, and families, often multiple times in the hopes of ensuring impregnation. If they become pregnant, not only must they carry the fetuses and give birth to the babies, they must then raise the children who are reminders of the brutality they experienced, reminders of the life they once had before their families scorned and abandoned them, penniless and pregnant with the enemy's children. These women often contract HIV, which is often passed onto the fetus, and both die young. If medical help is available to the women, it is concentrated on preventing the transmission of HIV from mother to fetus, and the woman's own health is abandoned once the enemy's child is born.
How can we claim to have achieved gender equality in a world such as this? The west turns a blind eye to its own perpetration of oppression and sexual atrocity onto third-world women and says we are all free. These acts of crime and demoralization happen to women BECAUSE they are women. Because these things happen to women in the world for the sole reason that they are women and are powerless to prevent it, women in general are devalued, and women everywhere suffer. Western men who go on sex tourism vacations come back home. They treat their wives, their coworkers, their families, their neighbours, with the attitude of male dominance that comes with their shameful secret of male power over third-world child prostitutes and young women. Western men make decisions about whether or not to intervene in genocidal wars in which women are brutalized by genocidal rape. Women's rights are not complete until there is protection in place for these women victims of male sexual dominance – and until the men (and women, although far less) in power actually decide to uphold those protections and step in to stop the abuse of women globally. And western feminists must remember that as far as we have come, the rest of the world's women are still struggling, and that comes back to us, and so if not for the women of the developing world, for ourselves, with every bit of voice we have, we must try to help.
Audre Lorde expresses my sentiment best: "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own." (Lorde, 1984. "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism", in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press. pp 132-133)