Of all the critical issues that loomed over 2012 -- environmental change, gun violence, Middle Eastern chaos, gay marriage -- the one that is ushering out the year is what keeps coming back to me with a sense of dread: the status of women around the world.
We recoil at the murder-by-gang-rape of a young Indian woman in faraway New Delhi, which is sparking political protest in the streets of India. It is so far away, so distant from our everyday concerns. But the brutality of the crime leaves me speechless. It makes me wonder: Can India's values be so different from our own?
The 23-year-old woman (her name has still not been released) who is a physiotherapy student was on her way home, accompanied by a male friend. A private bus stopped to give them a ride; harassment led to gang rape, including a brutal assault with a metal rod. The young woman died Saturday from her injuries.
The protests have erupted because rape is a rampant problem in India (this was news to me, sad to say). According to the New York Times, rape increased 25 percent in India from 2006 to 2011, with more than 600 attacks reported in New Delhi alone in 2012.
From the Times story:
"Last week, an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State committed suicide by drinking poison after being raped by two men and then humiliated by male police officers, who made her describe her attack in detail several times, then tried to encourage her to marry one of her rapists. Dozens more gang rapes have been reported in the states of Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in recent months."
Up to now I had thought of India as a rising economic giant filled with computer engineers and a burgeoning middle class. It is only by reading the coverage in the wake of the gang rape that I learned of the complex forces unleashed by the growth in that country.
Because of a cultural preference for male children, parents have aborted female fetuses, leaving the country with a skewed male-female ratio in society of about 15 million men. The imbalance has led to packs of men, such as those on the fateful bus in New Delhi, acting out.
This same sense of shock hit me earlier this year, after 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot on a school bus by a group of Taliban thugs because she advocated education for girls. Like so many of us outraged by this attack, I wondered at that time: How could such a thing occur? And what can we in the United States -- and what can we in an industry that sends out a cultural message to the world -- do to place such acts outside of civilized human behavior?
The world is changing rapidly, but it is not necessarily getting better for women. A look at the United Nation's 2010 report on violence against women makes for depressing reading.
"Violence against women is a universal phenomenon," the chapter begins, describing how women exposed to physical violence in their lifetime ranges from 12 percent in China to half or more in Australia, Mozambique, the Czech Republic and Zambia, which registers a whopping 59 percent. (The report does not mention India, or Pakistan and Afghanistan, where honor killings persist.)
The report calls for systematic research on the problem, of which there is apparently not enough. What research exists is disturbing: Like the statistics that 70 to 80 percent of women in some African countries (Mali, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia) justify being beaten by their husbands for burning the food. (See the chart, I'm not kidding.)
It is impossible to ignore a frightening pattern of violence against women rearing its head across the globe, in places where the United States has interests: in Pakistan, where we provide billions of dollars in annual aid; in Afghanistan, where we sent out soldiers to uproot the Taliban and support a new regime; in Egypt, where we send billions in aid.
In too many countries, women are not free. The fact that women in the United States and Europe have advanced as far as we have only makes the mistreatment of women in developing countries that much more difficult to accept.
It may be the problem we can least do something about, and yet it is an affront to all civilized people that appears to be getting worse.
We cannot take on all the burdens of the world. But the continual abuse of women in countries where we send our military, spend billions in financial aid and send our private sector business is something we cannot ignore as we look to the new year.