A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

100 million Missing Women

The August 23, 2009, issue of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to how women are faring around the world—their political status, economic standing, and health.

The statistics are sobering.  Across the globe, women are not getting the same health care and access to food as men.  They are less likely to be vaccinated and are selectively aborted. They are more likely than men to be sold into slavery and killed by beating.

Experts estimate that there are 100 million missing women: 100 million fewer women in the world than birthrates would project. That’s more women dead than all the men killed on battlefields in the 20th century, more than all persons killed in the genocides of the 20th c.

Contrary to popular assumption, “developed” societies don’t necessarily treat women any better than developing nations. The education level and economic success of a society do not guarantee high status for women.  According to an article by Tina Rosenberg, the sole determinant for  women’s low social status is patriarchy.  No matter how wealthy or educated a society is, if men are privileged women will suffer.

The issue offers some good news.  There is something that helps:  microlending to women.  Women who are loaned small amounts of money (sometimes the equivalent of $20) not only dramatically improve their own lives but also those of their families and their communities.  From a sheer economic standpoint, lending to women is more effective than lending to men:  women feed and educate their children and employ others. Several profiles of women put flesh on those statistics, telling moving stories of how women who are financially empowered are able to radically change their health and the power dynamics within their families. (Want to offer a microloan to a woman?  Go to kiva.org.)

As I read this issue, I was struck by several things.  One is how familiar the statistics sound tto those who know about the status of women in the periods described in the Bible.  As I described in my earlier post Eat Like an Israelite?,  Israelite women received less nutrition than men: skeletal remains from ancient Israel indicate that the average height of an ancient woman was 152 cm (close to 5 ft), while the height of an ancient man was 171 cm (5 ft 7 in).  Reading about high rates of maternal death and early pregnancies in Africa and Asia reminded me of reading Carol Meyers’ description of early Israel in Discovering Eve.

But, mainly, I was struck by how these articles were able to document in detail the detrimental effects of patriarchy—not just the psychological but also the physical, economic, and social. Too often in current political and religious debates, the role of women is treated as a matter of taste, a lifestyle choice.  This issue underscores the old maxim that the personal is the political.  Patriarchy starves people.  Aborts people.  Batters and rapes people.  And 100 million human beings are missing because of it.

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