International Women's Day Observes the Struggle for Equality, Justice, Peace and Development

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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. International Women's Day is March eighth. It is a day to observe women's struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. VOA reporters in several countries recently examined the situation of women. They found that for many, International Women's Day is a time to celebrate progress. For others, it is a reminder of how far they still must go to gain equality with men.

VOA reporter Margaret Besheer examined the lives of women in Muslim countries. She reports that positive changes affecting women are coming slowly.

Mishkat al-Moumin works at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Ms. al-Moumin says economic and social power are important to women's progress in the Islamic world. She says it is difficult for women to survive without men if there is no social or economic program to support them.

Education is another area where Muslim women are behind women of other cultures. United Nations reports showed that in two thousand five, more than seventy-five million women in the Middle East and North Africa could not read or write. This is a large part of the Muslim world.

Mishkat al-Moumin says uneducated girls grow up to be unprepared mothers. They are unable to deal with modern problems affecting their children.

Margaret Basheer reports that women are making progress at different speeds across the Muslim world. For example, in Saudi Arabia, modern change is coming more slowly. Women still are denied the right to vote or drive a car.

However, in other countries, women are beginning to gain a voice in politics. In Iraq, for example, women are playing an active role in government. In Kuwait, women voted and ran as candidates in parliamentary and local elections for the first time last June.

In Bahrain, the king appointed the first female judge last year. She joins other female judges in Jordan, Lebanon, Iran and several other Muslim nations. And a small number of Muslim women, including Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, have been leaders of their countries.

VOA's Steve Herman reports that on average, there are only about nine hundred thirty girls for every one thousand boys in India. Many parents like boys better because they carry on the family name. Girls may cause financial problems when they marry. Their families must traditionally pay huge amounts of money to their daughter's future husband.

Modern medical technology makes it possible for parents to know the sex of their child before it is born. Doctors use the method of ultrasound to see moving pictures of the unborn baby to make sure it is healthy.

But Sabu George, an Indian activist, says ultrasound is becoming "a weapon of mass destruction." Instead of using modern technology to save lives, millions of girls are being killed before birth.

Using ultrasound tests to find out the sex of the fetus is illegal in India. But Corrine Woods of the United Nations Children's Fund says that has not stopped it from being done. Ms. Woods says India's wealthier women have most of the abortions of baby girls. Researchers say one out of every twenty-five female fetuses in India is aborted. This is about one-half million each year.

Parents who cannot pay for ultrasound tests sometimes kill girl babies right after they are born. Baby girls who are not killed often die young because they are given less food and medical care than their brothers. They also receive less education.

Corrine Woods of UNICEF says her organization and others are trying to educate people to get them to change their beliefs about girls. India's government is proposing to set up homes called orphanages to raise unwanted girls.

But some experts express little hope. They say the idea has been tried before and the girls suffered in many of the orphanages. Sabu George predicts that even with political and legal measures, changes in beliefs will be slow.

Social scientists warn about the effects of the situation. They say it is not good for a society to have too many young men and not enough women for them to marry. This can result in more crime and violence.

Similar warnings are being heard about the growing population imbalance in China. Male children have traditionally been expected to take care of their aged parents. Poor farmers, especially, want sons because of a limited social security system.

But the National Population and Family Planning Commission recently called the gender imbalance a "hidden threat" to social order. Still, its director said China needs to continue to limit family size to keep the world's largest population from growing out of control.

Seven years ago, the United Nations set its Millennium Development Goals. Education for all children by the year twenty fifteen was one of the goals. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports that some gains have been made toward reaching that goal. However, much more needs to be done, especially in Africa.

Faty Seye  is a twenty-four-year-old woman from Dakar, Senegal. She did not finish high school. But she learned car repair skills free of charge in a program run by a local organization, the Young Women's Shelter. The group works with homeless girls, girls who have dropped out of school and single mothers. It offers classroom studies and hands-on experience.

Faty Seye was trained to be an automobile mechanic. She was not concerned that women rarely do this kind of work. She says that as long as you love your job, you will do it well.

In southern Africa, girls are more than half of the thirty-eight million children who are not in school. Girls are usually kept at home to work and to care for younger brothers and sisters or sick parents. Carolyn Bartholomew heads the Basic Education Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.

It is a coalition of international development groups. She says keeping girls in school is good for a number of reasons. She says the results include healthier children and stronger families. In addition, educated mothers are more likely to educate their own children so the positive results extend into the future.

In East Africa, girls growing up among the Maasai tribes of Kenya face cultural traditions that stand in the way of an education. Traditional values force many girls to accept arranged marriages when they are very young. Many girls are also forced to have their sex organs cut. Opponents of this tradition call it female genital mutilation.

However, some girls, such as fourteen-year-old Evelyne Meitiaki, are able to attend the AIC Primary School near a small town south of Nairobi. Her two older sisters brought her to this school when she was five years old. The school's rescue center has seventy-five girls. They live at the school and take classes through high school. A nongovernmental organization in Kenya supports the school.

Evelyne says she wants to become a lawyer. She says she wants to fight against female genital mutilation and arranged marriages of young girls. However, the Maasai see these "rescued girls" as rebels and a threat to their traditional way of life. A teacher at the school, Catherine Korrompoi  says Maasai culture must change in order to survive. She says these girls will change the whole community.

In Latin America, more women are taking important jobs in government. There are female defense ministers in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay. Chile also has a female president.

VOA reporter Mike Bowman talked to Lorena Escudero, the defense minister of Ecuador. President Rafael Correa appointed her in January, after the former defense minister was killed in a helicopter crash. Ms. Escudero says her appointment is one sign of positive change for women in Latin America. She says all women should fight and not give up. There are unlimited chances for success in the world, she says, and women should be part of it.

Our program was written by Shelley Gollust and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can read and listen to this program at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

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