Abraham Lincoln once said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my mother.” No words better describe the way I feel about my own mother, two grandmothers, and the myriad of strong and courageous women that have surrounded me throughout life—including my sister, cousins, aunts, teachers, colleagues, and friends.
Born in the U.S., I take for granted the freedoms and privileges that my mother and grandmothers never had, having escaped civil war in Lebanon or being exiled for opposing Russian nationalism in Armenia during Stalinist rule. Indeed, equality and human rights remain merely hopes for millions of women around the world who are vulnerable to discrimination, disease, and violence due to social marginalization and gender inequality.
Every day, 1,500 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications according to the World Health Organization. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries and most are avoidable. Many pregnant women have little or no access to health services either because these services are non-existent where they live, are poor in quality, or the cost of care is prohibitively expensive.
HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacts women around the world. Women’s vulnerability to the epidemic is dangerously magnified by the severe social, legal, and economic discrimination that limits their ability to access education, economic opportunities, and health systems, all of which have been shown to reduce the probability of contracting the disease.
Women and young girls are also explicitly and routinely targeted in some of the world’s deadliest conflicts, namely in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Rape and sexual violence are used as instruments of war. In desperation, many women too often must sell their bodies in order to provide food and other services to their families. Along with the physical and psychological scars, women who have experienced sexual violence become stigmatized and are then rejected by their husbands and communities.
Ongoing conflict and natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti increase the vulnerabilities women face when seeking medical attention. In these hardship settings, women often have little access to safe and comprehensive health clinics, and an untold number suffer severe health effects or die of complications related to childbearing.
Gender inequality and discrimination is widespread even in our own community—in Armenia and the U.S. Both at home and worldwide, these issues have received only scant public attention and the international community has made little progress in holding governments accountable for protecting women from aggressors or providing adequate health facilities to all populations.
In the U.S, where women won the right to vote 150 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Obama Administration has elevated the cause of the political, economic, and social advancement of women around the world by creating a new position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. All countries should emulate this increased attention and importance given to women’s issues and fully integrate women’s rights into the development of national and international policy.
Each of us—especially men—must also play a part in mobilizing our community to debunk gender stereotypes, combat violence against women and girls, and support efforts to increase equal access to education and healthcare. By taking bold steps to better the lives of women, we will be improving the lives of children and families everywhere.
I often ask myself how much better my mother’s or grandmothers’ lives may have been had they not endured the disruption of their education, dislocation from their culture, and the challenge of integrating into a new society. I take some comfort in knowing that their strength inspires me and many others to defend women’s rights worldwide.
In honor of the outstanding women in our lives, let us redouble our efforts and commit to a world where everyday is International Women’s Day.