It is indisputable that many women around the world are the subjects of social and economic rights violations. Similarly, women and girls disproportionately suffer physical abuse, from malnutrition and acid-burning, to gender-based violence and trafficking in persons. So it should come as no surprise that as many around the world recall the April 24, 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 and injured 2,500 garment workers, reports focus on failures of garment companies to compensate "the victims," on the physical injuries sustained by those who survived, and on violations of female workers' rights. To be sure, it is appropriate for world leaders, including the Pope, to decry treatment of workers as slave labor.
Yet, each such tragedy, and its coverage, further reinforces the world's view of girls and women as victims -- and thereby frustrates efforts to shift perceptions of women from victims to assets. Reporting typically portrays women as needing help, rather than as supporting their families, communities and countries. While certainly many women are hungry, others produce food on farms and in kitchen gardens. While surely many women lack healthcare, both maternal and basic, others are doctors, nurses, dedicated midwives and traditional birth attendants. While some are without financial assets, others are among the most reliable borrowers and savers -- or highly successful entrepreneurs.
Not only does characterizing women as victims tend to ignore their contributions, but it also demeans their value. And in many respects, the failure to value women and girls establishes the subtle and dangerous foundations for cheap construction and dangerous working conditions. While economic greed and corruption may drive some business-owners to treat people as virtual economic servants, their failure to recognize their employees' value as human beings is a further enabler. So it is that, as reported in an April 22, 2014 CredoMobilize Petition, a 20-year-old garment worker from Bangladesh, Aklima Khanam, recalls:
If I spent too long in the bathroom, they would pull my hair, kick me off the stool, and insult me with abusive language. My normal workday was from 8 a.m. until midnight, and in the four months I worked there I was never given a single day off.
While it may seem that the average woman is like cannon fodder to employers and the Bangladesh government, young women are increasingly valued by their families -- in part because young girls are gaining education. UNICEF data for Bangladesh shows girls' survival rates to the last grade of primary school at 114 percent of males. Women's literacy is now 86.2 percent that of males, which includes older women who were not able to attend school as girls. Consequently, employers increasingly regard young women as good and industrious workers. Local factory owners have thrived, multinational businesses have raked in profits, and consumers worldwide have bought clothes at exceedingly low prices -- all because women of Bangladesh contribute their labor.
Of course we should recognize and deplore suffering. And of course disparities based on sex or gender should be challenged and forcefully addressed. Yet for those committed to empowering girls and women, and to achieving gender equality, we must re-double our efforts to right the balance of perceptions: Ensuring that images of girls and women reflect their strengths and contributions. In the midst of grief and outrage a year after the Rana Plaza garment factory's collapse, let us also celebrate women's work and promote policies that ensure safe environments conducive to their dignified, fairly compensated and effective economic contributions.