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June 16, 2013

The Tragedy of Child Brides

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that of a total 140 million child marriages expected to take place between 2011 and 2020, 50 million will involve girls under the age of 15.  The UN, and most organization which track child marriages, define a child bride as a girl younger than 18 years of age. Boys are included in the statistics for child marriage, but comprise a small minority of children entering into marriage before age 18.

child-bridesThere are many negative effects of this practice. The facts below, compiled by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), highlight the tragic consequences for girls in a child marriage.

  • Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
  • Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19.
  • Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience. Girls ages 15 – 19 are 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children.
  • Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households.

While the practice of child marriage has decreased worldwide over the last 30 years, it remains common in rural areas and among the poorest of the poor.  The regions where the practice is most prevalent include:

  • Southern Asia, 48%—nearly 10 million—of girls are married before the age of 18
  • Africa, 42% of girls are married before turning 18
  • Latin America and the Caribbean, 29% of girls are married by age 18

An end to child marriage won’t come quickly or easily in these regions.  It is tightly woven into the cultural and religious life of the communities there.  As Cynthia Gorney reported in her story on child brides  for National Geographic:

“The very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners—that choosing whom to marry and where to live ought to be personal decisions, based on love and individual will—is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness. Throughout much of India, for example, a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents. Strong marriage is regarded as the union of two families, not two individuals. This calls for careful negotiation by multiple elders, it is believed, not by young people following transient impulses of the heart.

So in communities of pressing poverty, where nonvirgins are considered ruined for marriage and generations of ancestors have proceeded in exactly this fashion—where grandmothers and great-aunts are urging the marriages forward, in fact, insisting, I did it this way and so shall she—it’s possible to see how the most dedicated anti-child-marriage campaigner might hesitate, trying to fathom where to begin.”

Child marriage not only has adverse consequences for the girls affected, but also hurts the those societies in which it is common.  As Anju Malhotra, Vice President of Socioeconomic Development for the ICRW points out:

“Child marriage not only violates the human rights of girls, but its negative consequences ripple across entire societies. The practice contributes to extreme and persistent poverty; high illiteracy; high incidence of infectious diseases, including HIV; elevated child mortality rates; high birth rates; low life expectancy for women; and hunger and malnutrition. The consequences of child marriage undermine nearly all the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets that respond to the world’s main development challenges.”

The practice of child marriage represents a global problem, and it is only with a global effort that it will eventually be eliminated.  Until we ensure that every girl has the right to an education, to grow up in safety, and make her own choices about whether and whom she will marry, we will never be free of the scourges of poverty, ignorance and violence.

June 16, 2013

The Challenge & Promise of a Graying Planet

The world is going gray.  There were about 810 million people aged 60 years or older worldwide in 2012, and their number is projected to grow to more than 2 billion by 2050. At that point seniors will outnumber children (0 to 14 years) for the first time in history. The aging demographic is a megatrend that is transforming economies and societies around the world.  Japan is the only country with an older population of more than 30 per cent, but by 2050, 64 countries are expected to achieve that proportion.

Gray_PlanetA major study published by the United Nations has warned that the growing numbers of the elderly presented significant challenges to welfare, pension and health care systems in both developing and developed nations.  The report also highlights the fact that skills and knowledge that older people have acquired are going to waste in societies rather than being used to their full potential.  Utilizing this experience and knowledge, and investing in older citizens will prevent an aging population from becoming an economic drain and result in stronger, wealthier societies.  Many older citizens have skills that would be immensely useful to the voluntary sector but these have hardly been tapped on a mass scale. This could represent a “longevity dividend” for countries around the world.

senior citizens in IndiaAnother potential benefit of aging populations may be the prospect of a more peaceful world. Demographers have found that developing nations with more than 40 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 29 are 2.5 times more prone to internal conflict, including terrorism, than countries with fewer young people, largely because of high unemployment combined with youthful exuberance and vulnerability to peers.  As the population in these countries skews toward middle age, political stability tends to improve.

However, older is not always less violent. Not even a maturing population will settle down if accompanying economic gains aren’t shared, or if declining fertility rates don’t occur uniformly among different groups within a society.

The UN report expressed concern about discrimination experienced by older persons, particularly older women, in the areas of access to jobs and health care, subjection to abuse, denial of the right to own and inherit property, and lack of basic minimum income and social security.  In an attempt to reverse the trend of underemployment of older workers, Britain and several other European countries have passed laws preventing employers from discriminating against older workers.

It warned that the most serious impact of aging populations would be in developing countries without safety nets or adequate legal protection in place for older people.  In nations now dominated by young workers, urban migration has eroded traditional care of the elderly in extended families, as young parents have left for the cities.  The trend has also tended to leave the elderly acting as primary caregivers of their grandchildren.

Global aging is an inescapable fact of the 21st century and will present both challenges and opportunities for every society.

May 26, 2013

Reflections on the Meaning of Memorial Day

The intention of Memorial Day is to honor all who died in America’s wars, not to celebrate militarism or bless war.

Instead of letting the holiday be co-opted to perpetuate militarism, let us resolutely focus on honoring those who have given their lives in our nation’s conflicts.

This Memorial Day is an opportunity to consider: given the cost in these precious lives, we must find a better way, not just repeat the past again and again. War–and those whose lives are snuffed out or haunted by it–gives us every indication that we have not yet explored or employed our best intellectual, spiritual and material resources for preventing or addressing conflicts.  [Read the full post]

May 13, 2013

Making Women Equal Economic Partners – Closing the Nation’s Gender Based Pay Gap

Women in the U.S. have made tremendous gains in education, employment and earnings in the past 50 years, but there is still a persistent gender pay gap. Even young working women continue to lag behind men.  And, unfortunately, the gap tends to widen from graduation onward.  Here are some sad facts about the gender wage gap that were summarized by The Center for American Progress from data compiled by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

1. In 2010 women who worked full time, year round, still only earned 77 percent of what men earned. The median earnings for women were $36,931 compared to $47,715 for men, and neither real median earnings nor the female-to-male earnings ratio have increased since 2009.

2. The gender wage gap does not only affect individuals—entire families are impacted by women’s earnings. In 2010, in nearly two-thirds of families (63.9 percent), a mother was either the breadwinner—either a single working mother or bringing home as much or more than her husband—or a co-breadwinner—bringing home at least a quarter of the family’s earnings. When women’s wages are lowered due to gender discrimination, their families’ incomes are often significantly lowered as well.

3. Women earn less than men within all racial and ethnic groups. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, white women earned 78.1 percent compared to white men, African American women earned 89.8 percent compared to black men, Hispanic women earned 91.3 percent compared to Hispanic men, and Asian women earned 79.7 percent compared to Asian men. The wage gap is lower for black and Hispanic women in part because wages for people of color tend to be lower overall. This gap occurs within racial/ethnic groups as well. In 2010, according to the Census Bureau, African Americans earned only 58.7 percent of what whites earned, while Hispanics earned only 69.1 percent of what whites earned.

4. Even though women are outpacing men in getting college degrees that’s not enough to close the gender pay gap. The American Association of University Women tackled the pay gap question by looking at workers of the same educational attainment—same kind of college, same grades—holding the same kinds of jobs, and having made the same choices about marriage and number of kids. They found that college-educated women earn 5 percent less the first year out of school than their male peers. Ten years later, even if they keep working on par with those men, the women earn 12 percent less.

5. Women are more likely to work in low-wage, “pink-collar” jobs such as teaching, child care, nursing, cleaning, and waitressing. The top 10 jobs held by women include: secretaries and administrative assistants (number one); elementary and middle-school teachers (number four); retail salespeople (number six); and maids and housekeepers (number 10). These jobs typically pay less than male-dominated jobs and are fueling the gender wage gap. These are also the “jobs of the future,” the kinds of jobs that the Department of Labor projects will grow faster than other occupations, so addressing the pay gap here will have long-term consequences.

6. The wage gap accumulates over time. Over a 40-year working career, the average woman loses $431,000 as the result of the wage gap. The pay gap accumulates in no small part because initial pay matters: If a woman earns less in her first job, when she takes a new job and her new employer sets her pay scale, they will often base it on her pay history. The lifetime wage gap for a woman who did not finish high school is $300,000, while the lifetime wage gap for a woman with at least a bachelor’s degree is $723,000. Making sure that young women understand the importance of negotiating for good pay from day one should be a pressing policy concern and is included in the Paycheck Fairness Act.

7. As women age the wage gap continues to grow. For working women between the ages of 25 to 29, the annual wage gap is $1,702. In the last five years before retirement, however, the annual wage gap jumps to $14,352.

8. Single women are even more adversely affected by the wage gap than married women. Single women earn only 78.8 percent of what married women earn, and only 57 cents for every dollar that married males earn.

9. More than 40 percent of the wage gap cannot be explained by occupation, work experience, race, or union membership. More than one-quarter of the wage gap is due to the different jobs that men and women hold, and about 10 percent is due to the fact that women are more likely to leave the workforce to provide unpaid care to family members. But even when controlling for gender and racial differences, 41 percent is “unexplainable by measureable factors.” Even if women and men have the same background, the wage gap still exists, highlighting the fact that part of the discrepancy can be attributed to gender-based pay discrimination.

10. Mothers earn about 7 percent less per child than childless women. For women under 35 years of age, the wage gap between mothers and women without children is greater than the gap between women and men.

There are pay discrimination laws on the books, but the continuing gender pay bias shows that enforcement is weak or lacking.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would help women and minority workers challenge discriminatory pay in the courts.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would be an important step further and close the wage gap by prohibiting gender-based pay discrepancies and banning workplace policies that prohibit employees from disclosing their wages with each other.  However, the measure has stalled in Congress and currently seems unlikely to even come to a vote in the House.

The gender pay bias is a form of discrimination as ugly as any America has experienced.  It hurts the women who are its victims and the families they support.  No society will ever achieve its full potential if it demeans and disenfranchises half of its population in this way.

May 4, 2013

We Can Stop Violence Against Women

A 4 year-old girl died recently from cardiac arrest at Care Hospital in Nagpur, India after being raped by a 35 year old man, Firoz Khan.  He was  later apprehended by police and confessed to the crime.  The girl was allegedly abducted from Ghansaur, a small town in central India, on April 17, and was found by her family the next day, unconscious and with severe head injuries.  Though she was quickly airlifted to a hospital in Nagpur and put on a ventilator, she did not survive.

This incident was the latest in a series of brutal assaults on very young girls that have sparked outrage in the country and raised awareness about how women and girls are treated in India, and around the globe.

Statistics collected by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women about violence against women and girls worldwide paint a grim picture of the scope of the tragedy.

  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • An estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.
  • Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with husbands or partners as the perpetrator.
  • The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those under the age of 15 at the time of their sexual initiation.  Up to 45 percent of girls in this group reported that the experience was forced.

And the violence takes many forms:

  • Approximately 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation.
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.
  • Women and girls are 80 percent of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually, with the majority (79 percent) trafficked for sexual exploitation.
  • Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience various forms of sexual harassment at work. In Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea 30 to 40 percent of women suffer workplace sexual harassment.
  • In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools
  • Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been the victims of rape and other forms of violence during recent conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices. Any one of these abuses can leave deep psychological scars, damage the health of women and girls in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, results in death.

Over the years, there have been many theories about the causes of violence against women range from biological to social, political and economic.  To varying degrees, in many countries, women have restricted access, relative to their male counterparts, to education, health services and justice systems.  Gender inequality is often rooted in social attitudes and traditions, and enshrined in a web of legal statutes.

The United Nations has developed a list of recommendations aimed at dismantling gender inequality in all its forms and ending the violence it spawns.  But the very first step must be to bring this issue into the light where it can be acknowledged and acted upon at all levels of society.  In India, the recent brutal attacks against young women and girls have brought a public furor and activism never seen before.  This recognition of an intolerable situation is the first step to real change.  The struggle of women around the world for equality and freedom from violence is one that we all share.

We want to hear your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.  Join the discussion – here, on Twitter and on Facebook.  (On Twitter use the hashtag #dtpfsvaw.)

April 23, 2013

Palestinian Statehood and the Quest for a Lasting Middle East Peace

The Palestinian-Israeli issue has always been controversial.  Palestine’s upgraded UN status from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state,” passed in the General Assembly by a large margin on November 30, 2012, brings with it, on one hand,  new opportunities for Palestinians, while on the other hand,  it is potentially more of “a headache” for Israel.

Israeli-settlementsThe change from “non-member entity” to “non-member state” for Palestine at the UN has deepened the concerns and hardened the positions of both sides in the conflict.  Israel considers the fact to be counter-productive in terms of returning to direct negotiations for peace while Palestine continues to call for a freeze on building new settlements in the occupied territory as a precondition for direct negotiations.  Hence, the upgraded status for Palestine at the UN seems to have largely impeded further efforts and possibilities to reach reconciliation.

The complex issue of whether Israeli settlements in the occupied territory are legal or illegal was addressed in the UN Human Rights Council report, approved in Geneva in March 2013.  The report states that the settlements are illegal because they violate international humanitarian law under the Fourth Geneva Convention, specifically Article 49 which sets out basic criteria for what is acceptable as humane during wartime.  Palestine insists that before direct negotiations for peace can resume with Israel, building by Israel in the occupied territory must stop.  Israel is firm in its position that there can be no preconditions to the resumption of peace talks.

UN ruling on Palestine status changeThe recent change of status allows the Palestinians to participate in UN General Assembly debates, and gives them a chance to join UN agencies and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Palestine could choose to sign the ICC’s treaty and Rome Statute which may offer the opportunity to urge an investigation of perceived Israeli war crimes, and/or make other legal claims against Israel. This possibility, however, is not without potential problems for Palestine as Israel could lodge charges of their own against Palestine and ask for an ICC investigation.  Hence, while Palestine’s access to the ICC through its new UN status could eventually lead to enforcement of international law decisions resulting in an Israeli retreat from its present positions, ICC access exposes Palestine to the same international law and its enforcement.

Considering the historical experience and rapid developments in the Middle East, it remains very hard to predict whether a sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be reached for the long-term. But the UN action in November 2012 to upgrade Palestine’s status can be a first step to bringing the elusive lasting peace in the Middle East, so long sought after by both Palestine and Israel.  Perhaps it can offer an alternative road-map to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.