How the trafficking of women today is on a par with genocide

The authors of a new book, Half the Sky, say the slavery and abuse of women is the greatest moral outrage of our century

In it, they argue that the world is in the grip of a massive moral outrage no less egregious in scale or in the intensity of despair than the African slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries or the genocides of the 20th. They believe this outrage is a key factor behind many of the most pressing economic and political issues today, from famine in Africa to Islamist terrorism and climate change. Yet they say the phenomenon is largely hidden, invisible to most of us and passing relatively unreported. At worst it is actively tolerated; at best it is ignored.

The fodder of this latterday trade in human suffering is not African people, but women. Which is why they call it “gendercide”. If the supreme moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery, and of the 20th century the fight against totalitarianism, then, they write, “in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world”.

The contention is as startling as the idea of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist buying up prostitutes. I put it to them that, to some people, the claim will seem overblown. After all, you don’t go lightly comparing the plight of women in developing countries today with slavery or, by implication, the Holocaust.

“This idea is a couple of decades in gestation,” Kristof says. “Over those years, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that this really is the greatest moral challenge of this century.”

“When you hear that 60 to 100 million females are missing in the current population, we thought that number compares in the scope and size. And then you compare the slave trade at its peek in the 1780s, when there were 80,000 slaves transported from Africa to the New World, and you see there are now 10 times that amount of women trafficked across international borders, so you start to think you are talking about comparable weight.”

Yet this huge injustice was going on under their noses, largely unreported, dismissed as “women’s issues” by the mainstream media. “We’ve thought a lot about the failure to see this,” says WuDunn. “Partly, it’s because the news is defined by what happens on a particular day, and a lot of the most important things in the world don’t happen on a particular day . . .”

“And it’s partly that our definition of what constitutes news is a legacy of the perspective of middle-aged men,” adds Kristof. “It may well be that one major reason why high-school girls drop out of school around the world is that they have trouble managing menstruation, and probably one reason nobody has cottoned on to this is that people who run aid organisations and write about it have never menstruated.”
At the end of the book, in similar vein, they give a list of action points that readers can take within 10 minutes to make a difference. And they set us a personal challenge: will we join a historical movement to eradicate sex slavery, honour killings and acid attacks, or are we content to remain detached bystanders? It is the 21st-century equivalent of that ultimately probing 20th-century question: “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”

Part of a longer article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/19/women-slavery-half-the-sky

NB Some women’s groups have pointed out the use of photographs by the authors of women who have suffered violence are an unnecessary intrusion



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