Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sexism Kills...In America, Too

D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their new book, Half the Sky, present a horrific account of violence towards women around the world. By comparison, gender discrimination in richer nations, including the United States, is far more benign, according to the authors. It is simply a matter of not getting girls on male athletic teams, an unwanted sexual remark from a boss, the gender pay gap. While the brutality abroad certainly demands our attention, it shouldn’t obscure the potentially deadly dimensions of misogyny on our own shores.

The United States ranks 27th in the 2008 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, putting us behind Cuba and Lithuania. We’re only 37th in Health and Survival. Calculated by the World Health Organization, this category estimates how long men and women can expect to live in good health, considering the years lost to disease, malnutrition and violence.

Violence against women is rampant in our society and popular culture. Everything from increasingly graphic and available pornography, to the lyrics of our many well known rappers, to “Hunting Bambi” videos in which men in combat dress driving jeeps hunt naked women with paint ball guns. Our most popular forms of entertainment—television and electronic gaming— feature new and ever-more ingenious ways of slaughtering women. Numerous studies have documented the high correlation between violent entertainment and real-life acts of aggression. And we’ve seen how mass killings in America have targeted girls: in the Amish school house and more recently in a Pittsburgh sports club. But what we haven’t seen is an outcry against the systematic murder. “Why Aren’t We Shocked?” the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (the rare mainstream journalist to make this point) asks about the murder in the school? There would be an outcry, wrote Herbert, if it were black or white people, Jews or Christians or Muslims who were selectively killed. But because it was “only” women we barely notice it. It’s just the same-old, same old.

“I have been dragged up 36 iron steps by …my hair,” a woman said and this was far from the worst story I heard. She is one of the 4 to 6 million women abused in this country each year by their intimate partners. Unless it’s a celebrity, like the late swimsuit model Jasmine Fiore, murdered by her husband, we rarely get news of the 3 women every day killed by their present or former partners. And the numbers are increasing. “We’re not just seeing an uptick, but we’re seeing an uptick off the charts,” said Officer Steve Frazer, Commander of the St. Paul Family Violence Unit. American teens are also “experiencing alarmingly high levels of abuse in their dating relationships,” reports a June, 2009 study by the Family Violence Prevention Fund. The study concurs with experts in the field attributing the escalating violence to the poor economy: the laid-off abuser has more time on his hands, and with cutbacks in funds for shelters and hotlines his would-be victim has fewer avenues for escape.

Domestic violence, however, has been on the raise before the recession of 2008. The “soaring levels” of abuse are also a function of the aching male psyche. Already bruised by the terror attacks on our own soil and the seemingly unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our tarnished image aboard, the manly man is being further hammered by the economic meltdown. Beyond all the trappings of masculinity—being an ace athlete, a sound decision maker, a soldier—what really makes men feel like men? “Being a good family breadwinner,” says a two-decade long survey conducted by the Yankelovich Monitor, reinforcing numerous academic studies. Historically threats to feelings of masculinity result in greater subjugation and mistreatment of women. Buried under the myth of a post feminist society, sexism reigns in America.

The FBI estimates over 100,000 young American women and children are currently being “forced to trade sex for money,” girls like fifteen year old Debbie kidnapped in front of her Phoenix home, gang-raped, held at gunpoint, forced to have sex with approximately 50 men and kept locked in a dog crate until her rescue forty days after her abduction. But Debbie was fortunate to have a family that was able keep on top of the investigation until she was found.

But what happens to girls who flee dangerous home situations? Many of them end up as Prostitutes, virtual slaves to their pimps. They are branded, beaten and forced to turn tricks until they meet their quotas. These girls are considered “throwaways,” invisible to society, according to Rachel Lloyd founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. Her organization helps young women who have escaped commercial sexual exploitation—“the lucky ones.” A study by The American Journal of Epidemiology found the average age of death of prostitutes to be thirty-four.

And sexism is shortening women’s lives in other ways as well. For the first time since 1918, women’s life expectancy is dropping. Emphysema, kidney failure, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are taking a huge toll among poor women of all races. Not one state in fifty received a satisfactory grade in a women’s health report card issued by the National Women’s Law Center. And our infant mortality rates are appalling. Data released in October, 2008 from the Centers for Disease Control ranks the United States 29th globally, with Non-Hispanic black and American Indian women having the highest rates. In our nation’s Capital the death rate of black infants in 4 times the rate for white newborns. CDC researchers Marian F. Mac Dorman, PhD. and T.J. Mathews note, “The relative position of the United States in comparison to countries with the lowest infant mortality rates appears to be worsening.”

Women’s inability to receive adequate prenatal and medical care for themselves and for their babies is inexorably linked to gender discrimination. Startling new evidence has revealed a large gap in the cost of health insurance plans between what men and women pay, a difference amounting to hundreds of dollars more for women. Race isn’t allowed to be a factor in setting rates; neither should we allow sex to be a factor. And women have fewer employment and advancement opportunities than men, are more likely to work part time, less likely to have health benefits, pensions and unemployment insurance, and when they do work full time are paid only seventy-seven cents to the male dollar. Over the course of a lifetime, the gender wage gap of the average working woman results in a loss of $700,000— a huge sum that could have gone a long way towards assuring better nutrition and healthcare for a woman and her family.

And gender discrimination, long excluding women from clinical trials, has skewed the medical community’s understanding of serious, often fatal diseases. More women die each year from stroke and heart attacks than men, according to the American Heart Association and only 8% of doctors nationwide know this. It’s exceedingly common for women to be misdiagnosed and given inappropriate therapies because they may present symptoms unlike men’s and respond to dissimilar medications and dosages. “For too long women have been treated as ‘little men’…”said Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women’s Health Research, an organization committed to ensuring women’s inclusion and retention in clinical trails. “What it amounts to,” she said “is women’s health getting really short shrift.”

Sexism is killing women and their children here and aboard. The methods may differ but the horrendous outcome is the same. So yes, we must fight for justice for women worldwide, but we must also fight for it at home.