In Switzerland, for every 100,000 births, six women die in childbirth or just after. In Sierra Leone, 1,100 do. That’s right. A woman in Sierra Leone is 183 times more likely to die bringing a new life into the world than a woman in Switzerland.
It would be hard to find a statistic that more accurately reflects the injustice of a world in which whether you live or die depends on an accident of geography – on where you were born.
And think about the stories, and the lives, behind that statistic. In one part of the world, the bloodstained sheets, the clinics with flickering lights and intermittent electricity, few supplies and not enough trained nurses and doctors; the grieving husbands and parents, the children bewildered that Mum isn’t coming home with a new brother or sister – in fact, that she’s not coming home at all. And in the other part of the world, none of that: just the quotidian expectation that when a woman goes into hospital to give birth she, and her baby, will come home safely in a few days, and rejoin her family with all the happiness and giddy promise for the future with which such moments are endowed.
The challenges and injustices that girls and women in the developing world face are many, across all aspects of life, and include structural, social, economic and political barriers – barriers that men, and women who live in richer countries, experience to far lesser degrees.
The numbers are sobering, even beyond maternal mortality. About 39,000 girls under the age of 18 become child brides every day, with a greater chance of suffering abuse from their husbands. Only a little over 20% of poor rural girls in Africa complete primary education; fewer than 10% finish lower secondary school; and in many countries women in paid work earn 10–30% less than men. What is more, land, safe energy, technology, inheritance and financial services are often out of reach for women. Around the world, only about 22% of parliamentarians are female. Women can be disproportionately affected by corruption because of reduced access to resources, lower participation in governance and weaker protection of their rights. Cultural and legal limitations create these disparities, despite the fact that women provide the backbone of many aspects of life: in the home, at work and in the community. Violence against women – physical and sexual – reflects the sexism, disrespect and abuse of women’s basic rights that occur in all countries across the world. Beyond gross abuses of human rights, imagine trying to productively farm, or fix a car, or stitch a tapestry, or code a new software program, with one hand tied behind your back; yet that is precisely the situation in which a society finds itself when it ignores women’s potential.
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