These are not isolated cases. In Africa thousands of girls and young women are sold into slavery, some for as little as $15. And it is reported that each year hundreds of thousands of young girls are sold or forced into prostitution, mostly in Asia. Worse still, population figures for a number of countries indicate that as many as 100 million girls are “missing.” This is evidently due to the abortion, infanticide, or sheer neglect of females.
For a long time—centuries—females have been viewed this way in many lands. And in some places they still are. Why? Because in such lands, a greater value is placed on boys. There, it is felt that a boy can continue the family line, inherit property, and take care of parents when they get old, as often these lands do not have any government pension for the aged. An Asian saying alleges that “raising a girl is like watering a plant in your neighbour’s garden.” When she grows up, she will leave to get married or may even be sold into prostitution and thus be of little or no help in caring for aged parents.
In countries plagued by poverty, this attitude means less food, less health care, and less schooling for the girls of the family. Researchers in one Asian country found that 14 percent of the girls were malnourished, compared with only 5 percent of the boys. In some countries twice as many boys as girls are brought to health centers, explains a report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). And over 40 percent of the young women in Africa as well as in southern and western Asia are illiterate. “There is a dreadful apartheid of gender going on in the developing world,” lamented the late Audrey Hepburn, former UNICEF ambassador.
This “apartheid of gender” does not disappear when the girls reach adulthood. Poverty, violence, and unrelenting toil are all too often a woman’s lot, precisely because she is a woman. The president of the World Bank explained: “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work. . . . Yet they earn only one-tenth of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. They are among the poorest of the world’s poor.”
According to a United Nations report, more than 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people of the world who live in dire poverty are women. “And it is getting worse,” the report added. “The number of rural women living in absolute poverty rose by nearly 50% over the past two decades. Increasingly, poverty has a woman’s face.”
Even more traumatic than the grinding poverty is the violence that wrecks the lives of so many women. An estimated one hundred million girls, mainly in Africa, have suffered genital mutilation. Rape is a widespread abuse that remains almost undocumented in some areas, although studies indicate that in some lands 1 woman in 6 is raped during her lifetime. Wars afflict men and women alike, but most of the refugees forced to flee from their homes are women and children.
Mothers and Providers
The burden of caring for the family often rests more heavily on the mother. She likely works longer hours and may well be the only provider. In some rural areas of Africa, nearly half the families are headed by women. In some localities in the Western world, a significant proportion of families are headed by the female.
Furthermore, especially in developing countries, women traditionally handle some of the most laborious jobs, such as fetching water and firewood. Deforestation and overgrazing have made these tasks much more difficult. In some drought-plagued countries, women spend three or more hours every day searching for firewood and four hours a day fetching water. Only when this drudgery is done can they begin to do the work that is expected of them in the home or on the land.
Obviously, both men and women suffer in countries where poverty, hunger, or strife is the daily fare. But women suffer disproportionately. Will this situation ever change? Are there any real prospects that one day women everywhere will be treated with respect and consideration? Is there anything women can do now to improve their lot?
Girl Prostitutes—Who Is to Blame?
Every year an estimated one million children—mostly girls—are forced or sold into prostitution. Araya, who comes from Southeast Asia, recalls what happened to some of her classmates. “Kulvadee became a prostitute when she was only 13. She was a nice girl, but her mother often got drunk and used to play poker, so she had no time to care for her daughter. Kulvadee’s mother encouraged her to earn money by going out with men, and before long, she was working as a prostitute.
“Sivun, another pupil in my class, came from the north of the country. She was just 12 when her parents sent her to the capital to work as a prostitute. She had to work for two years to pay off the contract signed by her parents. Sivun and Kulvadee are not unusual—5 out of the 15 girls in my class became prostitutes.”
There are millions of youngsters like Sivun and Kulvadee. “The sex industry is a huge market with its own momentum,” laments Wassyla Tamzali, of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). “Selling a 14-year-old girl has become so commonplace, it is banal.” And once these girls are sold into sexual slavery, paying off their purchase price may prove almost impossible. Manju, whose father sold her when she was 12, still owed $300 (U.S.) after seven years of prostitution. “There was nothing I could do—I was trapped,” she explains.
Escaping AIDS may be nearly as difficult for the girls as escaping the pimps who enslave them. A survey conducted in Southeast Asia indicated that 33 percent of these child prostitutes were infected with the AIDS virus. As long as the five-billion-dollar prostitution industry flourishes, it is likely that these girls will continue to suffer.
Who is to blame for this horrendous practice? Obviously, those who buy or sell girls into prostitution bear a huge part of the blame. But also to be condemned are the despicable men who use the girls to satisfy sexual lusts. For without such practices of immorality, the prostitution of these girls would not exist.
Names have been changed.
A Woman’s Workday in Central Africa
The woman rises at six o’clock and prepares breakfast for the family and for herself, which they will eat at midmorning. After fetching water from the nearby river, she heads for her plot of land—it may be an hour’s walk away.
Until about four o’clock in the afternoon, she tills, weeds, or waters the land, stopping only briefly to eat whatever food she has taken with her. The two remaining hours of daylight are used to cut firewood and to collect cassava or other vegetables for the family—all of which she carries home.
Usually, she arrives home as the sun is setting. Now there is work to be done preparing the supper, a task that may occupy two hours or more. Sundays are spent washing clothes in the local river and then ironing, once the clothes are dry.
Her husband rarely appreciates all this hard work or listens to her suggestions. He doesn’t mind cutting down the trees or burning the forest underbrush so that she can prepare the land for planting, but he does little more. Occasionally, he takes the children to the river to wash themselves, and he may do a little hunting and fishing. But much of his day is spent talking with other menfolk of the village.
If the husband can afford it, after a few years, he will bring home a new, younger wife, who will become the center of his affection. His first wife, however, will still be expected to keep working as always, until her health fails or she dies.
African women bear a heavy work load