My father was a Polish refugee who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing with his family when he was eleven to South Africa. His experience and close escape motivated me to read stories about Nazis who committed horrific crimes at work and then went home to be loving spouses and parents. I was growing up in apartheid South Africa where I l earned about the brutality of the apartheid regime: some people used great cruelty to enforce rigid social divisions and imprison people without cause but were gentle and caring in their own families.
If women are ever to achieve equality, they must be seen as full human beings for whom motherhood is important but one facet of the diamond.
This schism in conduct baffled and preoccupied me. It made me want to study human behavior, and I trained as a psychotherapist in the hope that the more I understood why people behaved in these entirely inconsistent and contradictory ways, the more I could help stop the cruel and horrific elements. Years later in the US, running a shelter for battered women and families and working with the batterers, I concluded that when people dehumanize one another and see them as unworthy, dangerous, or threats to their own status, then mistreatment and injury is easy to justify. All too sadly the end of apartheid in South Africa did not end mistreatment of all people, there or in most parts of the world. All too often the victim is a girl or woman, and even more distressing is that these women are often very poor and powerless.
One in every three women worldwide will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. But attacks by intimate partners, “honor” killings, and rapes that go unpunished are only the most blatant displays of power and control that some men may exert over women when they are blind to them as fellow human beings. Some 38,000 girl children are married off every day, often viewed as economic burdens to be sold for a good bride price. Girl fetuses are aborted more than boys because of “son preference” in many societies. Girls are neglected as infants, fed last, confined at home to do chores and care for others, and deprived of health care and education that might give them ideas about becoming independent.
I have always been motivated by the need to stand up for people who have been dehumanized in one way or the other. As a student counselor at Columbia University, I worked with 14-year-old underprivileged girls who dreamed of becoming mothers because that would bring them the love they had not received as mere girls. They planned to love their babies as they had not been loved themselves. This romantic and unrealistic vision of motherhood compromised other life options they might choose, and would as a result probably not materialize. Living in New York City at the time I visited the Margaret Sanger Center and learned that efforts to educate local women about planned families with picture of the burdens of supporting large families had backfired. Instead of seeing the pressure of having to provide for so many through the pictures the eager American volunteers shared, women concluded that big families equated to more food and a bigger car. In reality it is usually just the opposite.
If women are ever to achieve equality, they must be seen as full human beings for whom motherhood is important but one facet of the diamond. Access to sexual and reproductive health care and rights is central to their ability to manage their lives and opportunity to make choices about their futures. Women should have the same options men do in deciding sexual behavior and the timing and number of their children. Moreover they can and must have the right to be agents in deciding other things about their lives.
In India on vacation, I met a learned Sherpa, fluent in 15 languages and writing a book on Indian history, who told me that in his culture in the Himalayas, it was customary for his first daughter to be married to a husband selected by him; the second sent to seminary to be a Buddhist nun, and the last take care of him and his wife in their old age. Laughing, he added that if there was a fourth daughter she would be sent to the place where “women give pleasure to men” For him, his wife’s responsibility was to conceive children, tend to them, prepare food and work in the field; neither she nor their daughters had any choices about their lives. He was a very gentle man who thought our Western traditions of marriage base on love, and independence for women was part of the reason for the decline of Western civilization. Family was an economic unit with clearly defined roles not to be tampered with.
It is not only in developing countries that I observed many ways in which women’s lives and choices are restricted. When I went to Japan a couple of years ago for a speaking engagement, I visited a charming but ordinary day-care center of which they were very proud. I learned that this kind of program was supported by the Japanese government to make it possible for women both to work and care for their children. Japan has the world’s lowest fertility rate – 1.2 children per woman – largely because no family related accommodations are made for Japanese women who work. The result? Women did not want to sacrifice their jobs and without support could not take care of families. Deeply disturbed by the declining birth rate, government stepped in so that women would have some options if their children required special attention.
At Independent Sector, the nation’s largest leadership network for nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs, a number of our members work to further women’s rights. I am proud that in our 30-year history these groups have done essential outreach and field work.
When more women make the decisions about the laws of every land and the directions of every business, then these issues of inequality will be properly attended to, and not before. It is up to all of us to promote the policies and political environment that support those choices.
Diana Aviv is president and CEO of Independent Sector, the national leadership network for America’s nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs