It's tough being a woman in this world. A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the perils facing women and girls around the world. This list is in no way in a ranked order, but it highlights some of the dangers facing women around the world. Don't worry this isn't just a depressing list of tragic situations around the world that will make you feel guilty about complaining about how long it took to get your iced mocha latte. With each item is also listed things you can do to help alleviate the situation for women and girls. And sometimes, it's as simple as just knowing the problem exists in the first place.
Ah the joys of childbirth. Nine (actually closer to 10) months of anxiously awaiting your new bundle of joy. The greatest gift you can ever give or receive and THE NUMBER ONE KILLER OF WOMEN IN THE WORLD!!!! (duh. duh. duh - insert scary music) Why would you put yourself through this? Because, as that statistic is actually true, it's a world wide statistic and your chances of dying in childbirth are, like most of the top killers of women, directly correlated to your socioeconomic status and geographic location. Your lifetime risk of dying in childbirth if you live in Afghanistan? According to Childinfo.org (http://www.childinfo.org/maternal_mortality_countrydata.php), 1 in 8. If you are living in the United States, it's 1 in 4,800. True that's better than Afghanistan, but compare that to 1 in 8200 in the United Kingdom and 1 in 47,600 in Ireland, and I'd say the U.S. needs to step up their game. The causes of death in childbirth are often highly preventable, and prevention is key. The best chance of survival of childbirth is access to family planning services, and access to quality medical care during pregnancy and labor.
Exploitation of women's bodies
While the exploitation of women's bodies may not be a leading cause of death, it's definitely something to be considered when compiling a list of things that make being a woman difficult. And by exploitation of our bodies I mean everything from the depiction of women in rap songs to the buying and selling of sex with young girls for profit. For more info on Human Trafficking, visit http://www.catwinternational.org/. According to RAINN (http://www.rainn.org/statistics) 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And remember those statistics are only based on those who reported their crimes. The risk of hearing women referred to as objects in mainstream music? Incredibly high. Your risk of men yelling obscene comments at you at some point in your lifetime? I would estimate 1 in 1. While obviously not as damaging as sexual assault, still annoying to deal with. And the fact that risk comes only from the fact that we are women. As Bob Herbert stated in a recent NY Times column, "We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected." (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/08/opinion/08herbert.html?_r=1)
Ridiculous standards of beauty
In a recent book I was reading about improv for actors, and how to let go of our inhibitions and not be afraid to let our flaws show, the author challenged his male readers to look at one woman's magazine once a week just to see what we (as women) are up against. These standards are not just exclusive to U.S. western standards of beauty, other countries have their own standards. And as the U.S. continues to dominate much of world culture and entertainment, our beauty standards permeate around the world. The risk here is the length women and girls will go to achieve these standards of beauty.
Not being woman enough
When I was growing up, I was often the only girl playing with a group of guys. If I didn't run fast enough, it's because I was a girl. If I couldn't catch the football, it's cause I was a girl. If I couldn't hit the baseball with the bat, it's cause I was a girl. As I got older I began to argue that my inability to succeed at sports was more a result of my lack of practice and hand-eye coordination, and not based on the fact that I have ovaries and menstruate every 28-30 days.
So it didn't surprise me when (okay actually it did, cause it's 2009) Caster Semenya's gender identity was brought into question when she improved her 800m personal best by 7 seconds in less than 9 months. Was it hard work and diligent training? Possibly. The use of performance enhancing drugs? Perhaps. Is it possible she's not actually a female? Let's explore this further. This sounds like the most likely explanation. The title of this category is misleading because I don't think the improvement of a race time makes her less than a woman. I would assume she's a hardworking athlete. But leave it to our patriarchal world to question a woman's athletic success.
Obstetric fistulas are a condition almost unknown in the developed world, but an indescribably hideous situation for millions of sufferers in the less developed world. An obstetric fistula occurs when a teenage girl cannot deliver a baby because it is too big for her pelvis. What happens then, usually after several days of labor without access to quality medical care, the baby dies, and the young girl is left with a hole between her bladder, vagina and sometimes rectum. Women with fistulas leak urine and f***s and are often ostracized from their villages, and left alone and ashamed. The saddest part of this story is that these are easily treatable with surgery, with 90% success rate according to UNFPA.
However, as should be the case in all health concerns, prevention is the key to ending fistulas. All women need access to quality family planning care, and reproductive choices. One way to prevent fistulas? Don't have young girls give birth. I know, I know, one thing at at time. To learn more about obstetric fistulas and what you can do, please visit http://www.endfistula.org.
I wanted to include this on the list, because unlike fistulas and dying during childbirth, this is something that greatly affects women in the United States. Heart Disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. That's right, heart disease. Not H1N1, or "swine flu" although the media hype around the flu would have you more concerned about shaking your co-workers hand than what sort of food you put into your body. And this isn't a disease (trust me, the health care field has tried) that is easy to speak about in dire terms. But things you should know and can do to decrease your risk? Easy. 1. Know your numbers: Cholesterol (HDL and LDL), triglycerides, blood glucose levels, blood pressure, BMI and waist circumference. 2. Reduce your risk by increasing physical activity, eating a balanced and healthy diet and eliminating tobacco.
It's also important to know that warning signs for heart disease are different for women. According to a study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, women showed signs for heart disease that included unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion, and anxiety. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of heart disease in women here: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/women/symptoms.aspx
Lack of education
I saved this one for last, because for me, it's directly related to almost every item listed above. Whether it's educating society about the importance of women or it's educating young girls so they can find careers and not be dependent on men, education is vital to the advancement of women around the world. In a much more eloquently written and detailed article, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explain the horrible plight facing women around the world, but also explain how education and economic programs can greatly improve the situation for many women around the world. If you haven't seen it, please read the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1