Why Do We Need Women’s Empowerment? A Personal Manifesto

By: Farida Naz

Asian University for Women, Chittagong, Bangladesh

Many people believe that women’s empowerment is a fancy term for feminism. Regardless of the good that feminist movements have achieved, many people don’t want to identify as feminists because of negative connotations associated with the word. Some people argue that there is nothing left for women’s empowerment because women already have equal rights in society. Yes, women do have more social, political, and economic rights than ever before. However, on a global level, women are still suffering from gender inequality and struggling with basic human rights like honor killings; child marriages; female genital mutilation; street harassment; rape; pay inequality; educational inequity, and more. In the modern world, women also have to deal with body-shaming, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on a daily basis. Those who claim that women have equal rights fail to recognize this troubling global picture; they ignore the inequalities that accompany assigned gender roles and limit the abilities of both men and women.

We need women’s empowerment because the honor killing epidemic needs to be addressed. According to survey data, around 2,000 women in India and Pakistan are killed by family members every year in an effort to “restore the family’s honor.” This crisis violates the right to life and is motivated by cultural norms. In both countries, the actual rates of honor killings are much higher than the survey reports; most of the time, family members commit the killings, thus there is no one to report the case on behalf of the victim. In Pakistan, in July 2016, the social media star Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother in the supposed name of family honor. Her brother’s explanation for the murder was that “girls are born to stay home.” In a press conference, he announced: “I am proud of what I did… I drugged her first, and then I killed her. She was bringing dishonor to our family.” Police investigations later revealed that her brother was a drug addict with a history of theft. He is now a murderer. This is the situation in male-dominant societies like Pakistan; if a male is a thief, drug addict, and even a murderer, that doesn’t bring shame to the family. On the other hand, if a female becomes famous because of her hard-work and talent, that brings shame to the family because “girls are born to stay home.”

We need women’s empowerment because, daily, nearly 40,000 girls are wed before 18. In 36% of cases, the girls are younger than fifteen. Child marriages take away the childhoods of little girls and push them into the responsibilities of married life. These young brides cannot continue their education, they cannot enjoy their childhood, and they have more health complications and high maternal mortality during childbirth. According to a report by the organization “Because I am a Girl,” a girl under the age of eighteen is wed every two seconds. If this issue is not addressed, more than one hundred and forty million girls will become child brides by the year 2020. Early marriages are forced marriages. Most common in South Asia and Africa, they are often motivated by the perceived obedience of younger wives. In patriarchal societies, men still want to dominate their partners. They don’t want a significant half; rather, they want a submissive sex slave and a servant to meet their needs. Parents wed their daughters early to protect girls from sexual violence. However, ironically, child marriages hold a larger risk of sexual abuse and domestic violence than adult marriages.

We need women’s empowerment because Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, is happening in twenty-nine countries and is practiced on girls as young as five months old. FGM prevents girls from having pleasurable sex and is viewed as protection against promiscuity. More than two-hundred-million girls and women alive today have been cut in thirty countries between Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. FGM has many short and long term health effects; the procedure may cause excessive bleeding, problems with urination, vaginal infection, sexual difficulty, and a high risk of mortality during childbirth. FGM, a very brutal act, is done to girls only because they are female. We need women’s empowerment to educate others about such deadly societal norms, to safeguard human rights, because FGM is not a “women’s problem,” it is the violation of human rights.

We need women’s empowerment because girls have fewer opportunities to receive an education in developing countries due to limited resources and gender parity. Providing education to girls will help to end vicious cycles of poverty. Education is a fundamental human right, but, sadly, women comprise two thirds of all the illiterate adults worldwide, as well as 60 percent of the world’s poorest people. Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, was shot to death because she stood up for girls’ education. In conservative societies, we need more people like Malala. We need more empowered women who can stand up for our rights.

We need women’s empowerment because women experience terror when walking alone under the moon and, in some places, even under the sun. Street harassment is a major problem faced by women, including myself, on daily basis. The Stop Street Harassment study, “Statistics– The Prevalence of Street Harassment,” reveals other staggering data. Public violence and street harassment are serious problems for:

79% of women living in the cities of India

86%  in Thailand

89% in Brazil

75% in London

These high rates of street harassment prove that women are treated as inferior. Women face serious insults in the streets every day. In addition to street harassment, sexual harassment is a grave problem.

The worst kind of street harassment is rape. Sadly, we are living in societies where rape is a common problem. Women are the major victims. The United States, the “superpower” of the world, holds the first position in rape cases. We are living in a rape culture where women are blamed for having been raped. Women are “slut-shamed” for provoking ever-innocent men. Instead of asking men to stop dehumanizing others, to stop snatching their rights, women are asked to wear proper clothes, to behave properly in order to avoid rape.

We need women’s empowerment because women are still defined by their looks. Women are pressured by media and the beauty industry to have skinny bodies and flawless faces. The beauty standards of mass media are one of the main reasons behind the bullying of young girls in high schools. Such harassments have devastating effects: depression, low self-esteem, anti-social behavior, seclusion, and even suicide. If women are obese, they may face problems in their marriage and personal life. Studies even show that obese women tend to make lower wages than other women. Due to such pressures from society, some women have potentially fatal surgeries if they can afford them, while others face social stigmatization and “fat-shaming.” Today, women across the globe are struggling with severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, among others. According to one study, every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. Women form the majority of people who suffer from eating disorders, and a major reason for such disorders is the standard of beauty given to us by the media. Healthy women are rarely happy with their bodies due to thin models whose beauty is manipulated in TV ads. Dark-skinned women are subjected to the pressure to look paler and pale-skinned women are lying under the sun for hours to get tan, no matter that overexposure to ultraviolet rays is known to cause skin cancer. The media is successful in making us all uncomfortable with our skin and our body types.  Competitions such as Miss Universe, Miss World, and other beauty contests make women self-conscious about their looks; beauty contests say that they judge participants on the basis of “knowledge, sensitivity, social commitment and intelligence,”  but I wonder: what does physicality have to do with intelligence and knowledge? If competitions seek to test social commitment, then why are the participants almost nude on the stage and catwalk? If these are the standards for testing intelligence, then why aren’t men asked to do ramp walks in underwear to demonstrate their knowledge? We need empowered women to stop the beauty propaganda on TV advertisements, to make people comfortable with their bodies, to stop judging people on the basis of their looks.

Women’s empowerment is a belief that women should be treated the same as men, not because women are better than men, but because women are also human beings and they have the same human rights as men in any society, in any time period. Men don’t have joyful lives in many societies due to gender parity. We need empowered women to ensure equal rights for all and for equal division of labor in society. Men are often considered money makers and providers for the family. Even if the women in a family have equal or more income than the men, men are still expected to bring more money to the family and to take care of family’s financial needs. One common expectation of men is that they be physically powerful: big, strong, muscular, and not vulnerable to any challenge. Men are expected to not express their emotions publicly. A common phrase in our society is “Men don’t cry.” Gender roles are holding society back. According to a study published on the Change Our World website, boys, due to gender parity, are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with a learning disorder. Thirty percent of boys are more likely than girls to drop out of school, they report. Tragically, they grow up into men who are also more likely to binge drink and around four times more likely than females to commit suicide. Gender roles limit the abilities of individuals and reinforce stereotypes about gender in society. It is time to appreciate the abilities of individuals for what they are regardless of their gender and sex.

I want to be an empowered woman because I don’t believe in a narrow definition of masculinity or femininity. I agree with British actress and activist Emma Watson who said, “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive, both men and women should feel free to be strong.”