The Twilight Struggle of Gender Equality

“Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. ”  -John F. Kennedy

In honor of International Human Rights Day this week, two guest authors examine modern women’s rights movements. Joshua Simpson looks at India through the lens of modernization theory, while Hannah Paul looks at the work of social movements in combating sex and labor trafficking.

Gender Inequality and Economic Development in India

Joshua Simpson, People Operations at Google

Outraged and wanting answers, protesters took to the streets following the death of thirteen women from mass sterilisations in India. Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on parents to better supervise their sons in an effort to protect women from sexual violence. Within the vibrant contours of Indian society, the women’s movement has grown alongside the more globalized and integrated Indian economy. In an effort to simplify this movement, I’ll endeavor here to share my own experiences and derive meaning for the changing landscape of gender equality in the world’s second largest country.

My initial introduction to India was Punjab, a mostly rural, farming region which borders Pakistan. The people here are incredibly welcoming, particularly the women who as homekeepers bear the primary cultural responsibility for hospitality. Although women can work and pursue education, their primary role is to marry and bear children, all at a rather young age. By the time a girl turns 18, the family is looking and hoping to marry her off, and a young woman who is not married by her early 20s would be a cause for concern. In fact, when in Punjab, one of the primary prayers of families was for the marriage of their daughters. Accordingly, due to the expectation of early marriage and childbearing, few women in rural Punjab have the opportunity to pursue any notion of a career or independence.

Generally, I believe the expectations for women in Punjab are more indicative of an agriculture-based region than of India as a whole, and women in urban settings like New Delhi demonstrate this well. My host in New Delhi was a well-educated women in her early thirties, who had been employed by multinational corporations since graduating college and waited until her late twenties to marry. Another woman had recently graduated law school, and was beginning her career; however, she felt restricted by family and religion and had to ‘save face’ by feigning interest in tradition. She was also very critical of Indian culture, often calling it backwards and slow-changing. In India, culture is religion, religion is culture, and it’s inescapable. This adds to life decisions a complex set of social norms that often require the approval or at least the input of family members.

The women I spoke to in New Delhi seemed to be on very different paths than their mothers or other older women in their lives, perhaps an indication of social change that distinguishes old India from a more progressive one. Now, there seems to be widespread agreement for women’s education and their waiting longer to marry; however, how this is practiced probably depends on location (urban versus rural) and family dynamics (adherence to tradition versus openness to change).

Many of the lessons from India are likely generalizable for women’s movements across the world. First, religion is an important factor, and how religion is practiced by a particular family will influence the future of women in that family. Even in the USA, a traditionally Christian nation, women have become more independent and scripture is now read in a less restrictive light, leading to more active responsibilities for females than was seen in the early 1900s. Second, a globalized economy significantly impacts the possibilities for women by exporting the norms of other countries through advertisements and pop culture, and by providing more diverse opportunities of employment that elevate earnings potential above cultural considerations. Furthermore, urban centers are almost always the first in a country to experience the effects of foreign economic activity.

India is a prime example of the changing role of women and a reminder that any widespread social movement must permeate both formal institutions and informal cultural norms before adopted. Although imperfect, like all nations, India’s trajectory seems promising and aligned with a future of greater gender equality.

Human Trafficking: Modern Oppression of Women

Hannah Paul, Engagement Officer at The Akola Project

In recent years the national discussion on women’s rights in the United States has focused on economic equality, particularly equal pay. While gender equality in the workplace is indeed a pertinent issue, I would argue that human trafficking poses an even larger threat to women’s rights in the U.S.

Human trafficking is a human rights issue that pervades global society. While the issue is universal, the majority of trafficking victims, particularly sex trafficking victims, are female. This form of slavery is a threat to the physical, emotional and economic well being of women in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Over the last decade, the American public and political and civic leaders have become increasingly aware of human trafficking, and consequently the anti-trafficking movement has grown. In 2012, President Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative that reflected national recognition of human trafficking as a major domestic issue.

While the anti-trafficking movement in the U.S. has gained momentum, there is still a long way to go.  Anti-trafficking legislation is young, many police forces have yet to be educated on how to effectively respond to the issue, and most services lack the capabilities to meet all the needs of victims.

In order to restore the voices of the girls and women disenfranchised by trafficking, and to prevent the vulnerable from becoming victims, it is critical to raise the level of awareness about human trafficking amongst Americans.

The Basics

The U.S. State Department defines human trafficking as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” The two major categories for trafficking are sex and labor. While many scholars argue that sex trafficking is a form of labor trafficking, a differentiation is usually made between the two. The following are a few telling facts about sex trafficking:

  • The average entrance age of person in sex trafficking in the U.S. is 14-years-old.
  • 1 in 3 runaways become trafficked. The Encyclopedia of Women and Gender reports that 90% of prostituted women have been physically abused as children.
  • Human trafficking is the 3rd largest international crime industry. It reportedly generates a $32 billion profit every year. Of that annual profit, $15.5 billion is made in industrialized countries.
  • The three states with the highest number of trafficking cases in the United States are Texas, California and Florida.
  • According to the U.S. State Department, 80 % of sex trafficking victims are women and girls and up to 50% are minors.
  • Over 80% of victims in 2011 confirmed sex trafficking cases in the U.S. were American citizens.

As modern slavery continues to be brought to the surface, how American policy-makers, law enforcement and activists address the problem will determine the state of women’s rights in the United States. Through an informed citizenry, social reform and efficacious policy-making, the U.S. can protect the rights of girls and women threatened by human trafficking, thus advancing closer toward true gender equality.

What you can do:

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