* Cornel West
In 2008 a ten year old girl in Yemen, Nujood Ali, succeeded in obtaining a divorce from the husband who beat and raped her. She has been allowed to divorce but has to pay more than $200 in compensation to her husband.
Her baby also died.
Obviously legal protection is needed to shield girls like these against being traded and married and abused. But the real key to the end of this suffering is education.
We need to become creative about how we might deliver education to the child brides that survive their awful experiences and then, at least, there will be a hope that their daughters will be spared the same fate.
If you are interested in this horrendous abuse of little girls then you may also be interested in a study called – The Worst Places to Be a Woman – Mapping the places where the war on women is still being fought. This study is by Valerie M. Hudson who is professor and George H.W. Bush chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. It makes interesting reading –
Reza Fani Yazdi is a human rights activist, writer and former political prisoner but this recounting of his story is remarkable precisely because it is, in many ways, a common-or-garden ‘how I met my wife’ story . There is something wonderfully and touchingly ordinary about him and his story. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy kisses girl for the first time in an interrogation centre…
But there is something very unusual about Reza Fani Yazdi – even more unusual than the backdrop of his love story with his wife, Sohaila Vahdati – and that is his clarity about who he is and what he believes. He has come upon this knowledge in the most difficult way imaginable but he has come upon it nevertheless.
Do you love your children? For most of us the answer is Yes.
Do you sometimes make them do things that are unpleasant – or even painful – for their own good?
Again the answer is Yes and we do this because we love them, don’t we?
All the doctor and dentist appointments. The homework and discipline and training in the face of reluctance and protest. But parents suck it up because they know it is for the future well-being of their child.
My niece had very serious scoliosis and had two extremely painful surgeries when she was just 13. I am happy to say that they were fantastically successful surgeries but there were no guarantees beforehand and they did involve a lot of pain and suffering for her whole family – and especially for her.
What would you do to prevent your child being ostracized, cut off or rejected? If she might be condemned to never being respectable. Never finding a husband. Never having a family of her own. You’d do a lot – most of us would – even if it was a risky and painful road, we’d be frightened not to take it.
It takes immense courage to stay with what you know to be true in the face of social pressure and tradition. What if you are wrong? It’s a scary place to be.
We can’t always trust our gut. Our gut will tell us to fit in and do whatever the herd does because there’s ‘safety’ that way. The people in this video are showing magnificent courage. Their capacity to hold fast and stay with the truth even while they recognise the pressure around them is inspiring.
I am in awe.
The final story in the trilogy of how I have accidentally learned some life lessons from my children involves my youngest son – Three-of-Three. He was seven or eight at the time. In this story, the parent (me) and the kids were all snuggled up in bed having a ‘tell-me-stories-about-when-I-was-a-baby’ session. I was obliging with funny stories about babies eating worms and being afraid of garden hoses and leaves and cacti and somehow it came up that when I was pregnant with Three-of-Three, due to a pregnancy complication (placenta praevia), I had to stay in bed for two full months. The conversation that ensued went something like this –
Three-of-Three: “But did you stay in bed all the time?”
Me: “I did.”
Three-of-Three: “Every single day for two whole months?”
Me: “Every single minute of every single day.”
Three-of-Three: “But why did you do that?”
Me: “Because if I didn’t you wouldn’t have been able to grow in my tummy.”
Three-of-Three: “Would I have died?”
Three-of-Three sat up in bed, looked at me very seriously and didn’t say anything for a few seconds, he was obviously thinking about this new information. Finally, once he’d digested it, with a very solemn expression on his small face he said – “Thanks, Mom.”
I was completely taken aback. I had always seen that time when I was pregnant with him as being about me. My experience. My pregnancy. My fear. My worry. My potential loss. I saw my two months of being consigned to bed as something I did for myself.
He saw it differently. He saw himself as a person in his own right, not an extension of me, or even a ‘product’ of me but a whole, distinct other person.
And for the first time, I really realised that that was true. Not that I hadn’t given lip-service to that idea before – I had. There was just something about his heart-felt expression of thanks that showed me not only that was he grateful but also that he really wasn’t me.
Which got me to thinking that our children, as well as being born of and influenced (for better or worse) by us are also complete human beings in their own right (also for better or worse).
Which means so are we. We are products of certain people and certain times and certain environments but that’s not all we are – we are also uniquely ourselves.
Just like Three-of-Three.
Continuing the theme of lessons we accidentally learn via having children – this story is about my second son. I have three so this makes him ‘the disadvantaged middle child’. As he always felt free to complain about the fact that he was suffering from this syndrome, I figured he wasn’t quite as disadvantaged by his position in the family as he made out. Anyway, always a perceptive child he also taught me quite a lot.
The pivotal conversation with this child – let’s call him Two-of-Three – happened in the aftermath of him getting into trouble for something or other. This was not a rare occurrence, he was a bit of a crazy boy when he was a kid and common words out of my mouth to him were often along the lines of – “Seriously?” and, “What were you thinking!” and “Please think before you act…” – he was maybe nine or ten at the time of this incident and it went something like this –
Two-of-Three – “I don’t think it’s fair that you punish me twice when I do something wrong.”
Me – “I never do that.”
Two-of-Three – “Yes you do. You always do that.”
Me – “No. You know that’s not true – you know you shouldn’t have done x, y or z and now you’re grounded and that’s just one punishment.” (N.B. – I’m pretty sure this is historically accurate and that he was grounded no matter what his transgression as it was my go-to sanction)
Two-of-Three – “No – you’re mad at me as well and that means you’re not as friendly as you are the rest of the time – that’s two punishments.”
Me – ………..deafening silence……………
The truth has that effect on me sometimes – especially when it comes out of the mouth of babes – even badly behaved ones.
He was right. I was nothing as forgiving and straightforward as I believed myself to be.
So this is what I said when I recovered –
He was nicer than me and therefore didn’t punish me twice.
In spite of a thriving economy, the malnutrition, low birthweight and maternal mortality rates in India rivals those of sub-Saharan Africa.
Which is not only tragic for those children and their families but for all of the people of India, as these underweight and malnourished children suffer from poor health and reduced mental capacity which results in problems that are estimated to cost the Indian government c. $28bn a year. (1)
So, why are the children in this growing economy continuing to suffer so badly?
It seems the main reason is the fact that women in India have a lower status than men and as a result don’t have enough power to see that their children’s needs are met. (2)
A study in Nepal found that children are less likely to be underweight if their mothers own land. (3)
Another study in Nicaragua and Honduras demonstrated that families spend more money on food when the woman owns land.
In Ghana a study found that families allocate more of their household budget to food when women own a share of the family farmland. (4)
All around the world when women are educated and have secure rights, their families have better education, better nutrition and better health.
I know it is probably not news to you all that everybody in a society does better when women are treated equally. And I know I keep saying this same thing in different ways (sorry for the repetition) but I have now decided to say one thing I’ve never said before – where are the men in this?
Surely these children all have fathers? Even if they don’t respect their wives as much as they should – why don’t they feel they have to care for their children? Why don’t the women in their societies hold them to this sacred duty? Why are these adult men not ashamed when they put their wants before their children’s needs?
I have a father, husband, three sons, two brothers and many male friends. I love and admire all of them and those amongst them who have children are honourable and dedicated fathers. How are they so different to other men in the world?
Is it because they live in a society where women have (more or less) equal status? Where women have rights? Where women are educated? If so, what factors in this have allowed some men (like the men in my life) to develop greater courage, selflessness and care than their counterparts in other parts of the world?
I’m not suggesting that all the men in western societies care for their children but many of them certainly do – many more than in other cultures.
My question is – why?
- 42 percent of Indian children under 5 malnourished (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Malnourished children (thehindu.com)
- Every 3rd malnourished child is an Indian: report (ibnlive.in.com)
- India’s (Our) Malnourished Children (donsweblog.wordpress.com)
- Study: 42 per cent of Indian kids under 5 malnourished (ctv.ca)
- India’s ‘shame’: 4 in 10 kids malnourished (msnbc.msn.com)
- Legislators walk the talk (thehindu.com)
UNFPA is the United Nations agency that deals with providing much needed family planning and reproductive health services in the developing world. In 2002, the American government decided not to give a promised 34 million dollars to UNFPA.
In different parts of the country and without ever having met, two ordinary American women, Jane Roberts and Lois Abraham, asked the women of America to send $1 dollar each to UNFPA.
Nobody – not even UNFPA – thought it would work. But it did. Soon a deluge of envelopes with single dollar bills began arriving at the UNFPA offices from women – and men – all over the United States.
From this an organisation called 34 Million Friends of UNFPA (www.34millionfriends.org) was formed and millions of dollars were raised to help families all over the world.
In 2009, the U.S. administration restored the funding to UNFPA but 34 Million Friends still continues to work to support this vital service.
And all from the efforts of two ordinary women – a social action butterfly effect if ever there was one.
In their book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn tell the story of an Indian neighbourhood – Kasturba Nagar – a place where the inhabitants are Dalits (Untouchables) and the lanes run with sewage and desperation.
For almost fifteen years, Akku Yadav and his gang ruled the slum with weapons of terror. They robbed, tortured and murdered at will – much of the time choosing rape as their preferred method of controlling the people. In this area rape is so stigmatizing that the victims often remained silent, which allowed Akku Yadav to act with impunity. The few that reported the crime were ignored by the police.
The slum-dwellers say Akku Yadav once raped a woman right after her wedding and that he and his gang dragged another woman – who was seven months pregnant – into the street where they raped her in public view. They also gang-raped another woman just ten days after she’d given birth – that woman was so humiliated she killed herself by dousing herself with kerosene and setting herself on fire.
In addition to the rapes, Akku Yadav once stripped a man, burned him with cigarettes and made him dance in front of his sixteen year old daughter and tortured a woman by cutting off her breasts and cutting her to pieces in front of her daughter and neighbours. One man, Avinash Tiwari, planned to go to the police, so Akku Yadav butchered him as well.
The inhabitants were terrified of Akku Yadav. 25 families moved away but most had no hope of escape, so they took their daughters out of school and hid them in their houses to try to protect them. And the police didn’t help – as long as Yadav targeted Dalits they didn’t interfere.
Usha Narayane is from this neighbourhood but her parents struggled and saved all their lives to educate her and her siblings. She has a degree in hotel management and was due to begin work when she went home for a visit.
Akku Yadav was rampaging as usual. He raped a thirteen-year-old girl and then he and his men went to the neighbours of the Narayanes to demand money. The gang broke up the house and threatened to kill the family. The neighbours were too terrified to act, so Usha went to the police to file a complaint for them.
The police told Akku Yadav what she had done and he and 40 men surrounded Usha’s house. Yadav had a bottle of acid and he shouted at Usha to back down. She barricaded herself inside and called the police – but they didn’t come. So Usha turned on the gas in her house and told Yadav if he came in she’d blow them all up.
The neighbors were unsure what to do but when they saw Usha fighting back it gave them courage and they hurled sticks and stones at Yadav and his men. The gang ran off. The Dalits were ecstatic – for the first time ever they had defeated Akku Yadav and his men. The slum-dwellers burned down Yadav’s house and he was arrested for his own protection.
Akku Yadav’s bail hearing was scheduled and rumour had it that he’d bribed the police and was going to be released. The hearing was set for a court miles away in Nagpur. Hundreds of Dalit women marched to attend. Akku Yadav strutted into court, confident and unrepentant. He saw a woman he had raped and called her a prostitute and said he’d rape her again. She ran forward and hit him with a slipper and then all the women came forward and surrounded him screaming and shouting. They threw chili powder at the police guarding him and then the women pulled out knives and began to stab Akku Yadav. They had agreed that each of them would stab him at least once. They killed him and cut off his penis and then marched back to Kasturba Nagar. The slum had a party – the monster was dead.
Everyone knew Usha Narayane had orchestrated the murder but she wasn’t in court that day and though she was arrested nobody could prove her involvement. The woman had decided if they all stabbed him no one wound – or one woman – could be said to have killed him. A public outcry followed the murder of Akku Yadav and the plight of Kasturba Nagar became public. A retired high court judge took the part of the women saying they’d sought help from the police and had been abandoned.
This is the type of story that clearly demonstrates to me the type of moral dilemma that plagues our world. Akka Yadav had clearly caused immense suffering and was no loss to humanity. The police were corrupt and the Dalits had no recourse to justice. One has to wonder if it is just to allow suffering to continue. Or to allow the tyrant to thrive.
Perhaps it’s the savagery of the attack but somehow the solution feels wrong as well. It reminds me of war. But having said that – what else could they do?
I don’t know the answer.
What do you think?