Last week, after the suicide bombing at Manchester Arena, several reporters commented on how it represented an attack on girls and women. As a doctor involved in the response to sexual and gender-based violence, I was interested to hear what these journalists had to say. They made valid and important points – from how the attack occurred at a concert by Ariana Grande, who has taken a strong stand against sexism and the objectification of women while embracing sex positivity, to how terrorists and their supporters aim to limit girls’ and women’s freedom and opportunities.
The attacks were a reminder of the ubiquity of malice against girls and women. Oppression and misogyny aren’t confined to only some areas of the globe. As we saw in our recent presidential election, even here in the US, we still have a long way to go. Nick Kristof provided another reminder in one of his recent editorials which described the plight of an 11-year-old Florida girl pushed to marry a 20-year-old church member who had raped her. In the same article, Kristof laid out surprising statistics on “child marriage” in the US, similar to other areas of the world.
Clearly, we aren’t where we need to be.
Though it’s often easier to point fingers at others, it’s important to examine how those of us with privilege can influence the lives of other women and girls. Those of us in positions of power and influence need to be leaders in all areas of society – from medicine to business to government. As First Lady, Michelle Obama rightly and repeatedly returned to this important theme.
Right now, there are many opportunities to help women and girls, including those living in the US. Here are some acutely evolving areas of policy that matter:
- Health Care: Currently, there is an effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act, which would result in a major loss for women – from access to preventive services, including contraceptive and reproductive health services, to restrictions on health services for women who have been raped, abused, pregnant, or depressed. Instead of focusing on repeal and replacement, we should work to improve the Affordable Care Act for everyone.
- Education: The current administration aims to cut the Education Department’s funding by $9 billion – particularly with cuts to career and technical education. Almost $1 billion would go toward charter-school and voucher initiatives while shifting money away from public education. Proposed changes will disproportionately hurt vulnerable kids, working families often led by women, and teachers, about three-quarters of whom are women. Rather than shifting funds away from public education under the guise of “choice,” we should support our teachers while maintaining accountability.
- The Basics: Proposed changes in housing, supplemental nutrition, and tax policy will disproportionately harm individuals living in poverty, particularly women who often bear the greatest burden of poverty. If we can’t guarantee basic needs for women and their children, where do we even begin to improve the lives of girls and boys?
- Business: We still don’t have a federal living wage or a legal requirement that women receive equal pay for equal work. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, who often support families in single and combined parent households. These disparities aren’t coincidental. Some states and employers are already taking steps toward establishing a living wage, but we still have a long way to go.
- Politics: Though women represent at least half of the American population, relatively few hold public office. That means that issues that matter to women – from health care and economics to animal welfare and war and peace – don’t get the attention they deserve. And proposed solutions don’t benefit from women’s wealth of experience.
So, here’s the good news. Since the 2017 presidential election, more women are exploring political careers. Across the US, women are finding support from nonprofit organizations, political consultants, and other women. And women aren’t just running for office – they are winning.
So where are there opportunities for us to stand up and speak out for other women? Everywhere. Whether you’re considering running for office, supporting another woman who is interested in running, becoming or continuing as a local activist, or calling your local, state, or federal representatives, you can make a difference for women and girls. (Here I’d add that men and boys can certainly help out, and many good ones often do!) And, together, we can set an example for the rest of the world.