So, as it turns out, a Senator from Nigeria’s parliament wed a thirteen year old Egyptian girl a few weeks ago (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8649035.stm). Tehran’s police chief declared today that women with suntans run the risk of being arrested (see: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/04/28/women-suntans-arrested-iran-police-chief-warns/). This week more than 80 Afghan girls were poisoned by gas at their schools (see: http://law.rightpundits.com/?p=1509), an attack apparently undertaken by those who would propose women be banned from education.
Here at home the famous birth control pill celebrates its 50th year in the mainstream of female reproductive health (see: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1983712,00.html). “The pill”gave western women the freedom to decide their own destiny and today an estimated 80 million women take the birth control pill worldwide (See: http://www.womensenews.org/story/health/030218/birth-control-pill-may-protect-ovarian-cancer). Not only do women take the pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies, they take it to regulate an array of functions associated with the complex system that keeps women’s bodies running regularly. Miracle drug, if there ever was one. One little pill can solve so many ills.
But then, behold the rest of the world. Women in developing countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Angola and beyond still lack access to medical clinics that offer exams and prescriptions for the pill. Many women in sub-saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East still preside over families that are too big to support on the meager earnings of hardly educated parents who struggle just to stay alive from day to day.
So why would a family ship their 13-year-old to another country to marry a man decades older? Perhaps because they have too many children – too many mouths to feed. Marrying off their daughters as best they can is a way for these families, emboldened by custom, to get rid of their kids and stop having to feed or look after them. Nevermind that their daughter may be unrecognizably bruised and battered inside and out by the time she’s 30.
Around that same age, a woman in the Western world may just be emerging from graduate school and eyeballing her future with excitement – that is if she hasn’t been date raped while in college. Even so, she was probably on the pill and doesn’t run the risk of being pregnant thereby slapping a lid on her dreams. Most women in their 30’s are just beginning to realize what they can achieve and what opportunities lie ahead – whether by virtue of marriage and a controlled family; or by virtue of a career and financial success. A woman’s 30’s, in the West, are her gateway to the prosperity that life holds. In the East, they may be the gate closing in on the twilight of hope.
I remember 30. I lived in NYC and was in my first year of law school. I could barely contain my glee at the prospects of ‘tomorrow’. I took a daily jog along the banks of the Hudson and remember every morning thinking how excited I was to tackle the day – and the rest of my life. I could see only success ahead of me. I was wrong. But nothing stopped me other than my own decisions. Not tradition. Not an old guy in another city waiting to take my dreams away. Not a brother and sister who needed me to work and feed them instead of go to school. Nothing but my own bad decisions.
Today I look at the plight of women around the world and can’t help but wonder about the random allocation of fortune versus misfortune. Women in the East are born into their destiny, it seems, and no little pill can pierce that. As often as I meet women from Africa and the Middle East who are emancipated, educated and successful in their own right, I read stories of women and girls who are mired in a tradition that dis-serves them. I wonder what makes the difference between an Eastern family that sends their kids to school in the West and expects no less of their daughters than their sons, and the families that keep their daughters locked at home and married off before they can identify where their own lives begin and their parents’ lives end. Education is one key, no doubt. But the other is mere birth control. Having no method to control the number of children these families have necessarily endangers the families’ well-being. Having more children than money to feed them makes families have to make horrific choices, that to people who don’t face those stark circumstances, may seem extreme.
That said, I don’t think a family that has access to a member of parliament from another country was making a financial choice. They were likely making a social decision to “marry up” using their young daughter as currency. She just paid for her parents’ enhanced social status with her precious life. This kind of conduct should be globally condemned. But that is, again, where tradition comes in. This is how it’s been done for generations, and to change Tradition takes generations of education, years of protest and a global howl against child exploitation in all its forms. In the meantime, something as simple as the birth control pill could get shipped off to far-away lands where women and girls need all the miracles they can get.