Seeking a better world for women and girls

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d5712 (Published 28 September 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5712
  1. Janice Du Mont, scientist1,
  2. Deborah White, associate professor2
  1. 1Women’s College Research Institute, Toronto, ON, Canada, M5G 1N8
  2. 2Department of Sociology, Trent University, Peterborough, ON, Canada
  1. janice.dumont{at}wchospital.ca

A moral and political movement is needed to end gendered oppression

One of the great injustices of our times is the insidious, systemic, and widespread oppression of women and girls. Gendered violence and avoidable complications of pregnancy and childbirth are associated with increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicidality, chronic diseases, disabling injuries, and death.1 2 They are also infringements of basic human rights and freedoms.1 2 For several decades these problems have been documented, and programmes, campaigns, policies, laws, conventions, and treaties have been devised to eliminate them.1 2 Despite some successes, American journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue in their 2009 book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, that it will take an incipient movement to emancipate women fully from what is the “equivalent of slavery.”3 Half the Sky is an impassioned call for action to stop routine abuse and neglect.

The statistics are grim. Up to a billion women worldwide have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetime.4 Four out of five of the estimated 800 000 people trafficked across borders annually are women and girls, most of whom are targeted for sexual exploitation.5 More girls have been killed simply because they were girls in any single decade than people were murdered in all the genocides of the 20th century.3 Furthermore, the claim that childbirth is almost as deadly as ever remains true.3 In 2008, 358 000 maternal deaths were reported globally, 99% of which occurred in developing countries.6 Because of a lack of available appropriate health services, for each woman who dies, 20 others endure long term ill health.2 Population level strategies, in combination with cause specific interventions, show promise for reducing maternal mortality and morbidity, but they require the staunch support of relevant stakeholders.7

These facts are not new to those who work in these areas but may be a stark revelation for others. By highlighting violations such as forced prostitution, rape, honour killings, female genital cutting, and acid attacks through personal accounts of tragedy and triumph, popular media can inform and inspire citizens. Exposure to the efforts of ordinary people’s attempts to tackle such devastating problems could help engage people in meaningful change (www.halftheskymovement.org/). Half the Sky’s reference to the successes of small microfinance operations is—for example, supported by research showing that specific initiatives such as the Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity in South Africa can reduce intimate partner violence.3 8 However, other effective programmes for preventing and dealing with violence against women and girls are desperately needed.

How can a call to action to end gendered oppression be put most effectively into practice? Representatives of state organisations could capitalise on the interest generated by a book such as Half the Sky to give the problem a higher priority on national, regional, and international agendas in resource poor and resource rich countries. Because gender inequality lies at the core of oppression, the focus should not be solely on women as victims of injustice and agents of change responsible for their own emancipation,9 but also on men and cultures of masculinity through which the unjust balance of power is generated and reproduced. Those who harm women and girls must be held accountable, and all men and boys must be fully engaged with interventions that promote equality and prevent violence.8 Moreover, this action must avoid ethnocentrism, support the growth and activities of local leaders, and begin to attend to the Western economic power that can keep women and girls in the developing world impoverished.9

Any movement intended to alter societal structures and attitudes requires political will. Building political will requires collective resolve and coordinated action across nations. With this, it is more likely that—for example, the United Nation’s millennium development goals’ focus on promoting gender equality, empowering women, educating girls, and improving maternal and child health is achieved.10 11 Although a multisectoral strategy is essential, the health sector has the potential to take the lead in this regard,1 8 11 and further investing in the health of women and girls, as Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, has commented, is “not only the right thing to do,” but an important means to create more peaceful and productive societies.12 “When we deliver for every woman and every child, we will advance a better life for all people around the world,” he added at a recent UN headquarters event.13

It is strikingly clear that the oppression of women and girls is a profound moral and political concern.3 Now is the time to act to end the deplorable state of so many lives in both developing and industrialised countries. We must challenge indifference and cast a wide net across all levels of societies to harness the energies of those concerned. The task is immense but not insurmountable.11


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5712


  • Competing interests: The authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.


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