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Maryam Zar Headshot

International Women's Day 101

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Every year, March brings the rebirth of Spring, the holiday of Nowruz for people across the Middle East and Asia, and International Women's Day for women -- and men -- around the world.

This year is the one hundred and first year the globe celebrates women and advocates for their empowerment. A good time for us to review birthing 101, in honor of all the women who still live in places where birthing is uncontrolled, personal rights are objectionable, self determination -- whether physical, emotional or intellectual -- is improper and being female is a hazard. Today is the day to shine a bright light on traditions that dictate a predetermined life for girls and women who may never see the inside of a school-house, may never have a say in the manner or timing of child bearing, who get married off too early to bear children but suffer through it nonetheless, who die during child birth or endure the death of an infant, or forcibly dispose of girl children as a method of family planning.

Against this backdrop, right-wing conservatives in the US, where the birth control pill recently celebrated its 50th birthday, have endorsed controlled family planning by way of yet another pill: an Asprin between the knees. Seriously, women's emancipation in large swaths of this globe -- where women's rights are a non-starter -- can begin with something as simple as the birth control pill. In a world that has expanded exponentially to a population of 7 billion, with millions mired in poverty and food scarcity an undeniable reality, where women struggle to feed their children and often trade them like cattle for money to feed the multiple younger siblings left behind, birth control is hardly fodder for lighthearted fun.

50 years ago "the pill" gave Western women the freedom to decide their own destiny. Today an estimated 80 million women take the birth control pill worldwide. Not only do women take the pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies, they take it to regulate an array of functions associated with the complex system that keeps women's bodies running regularly. In places where doctors are rare and women's health care is a subject of ginger discussion, the pill would be a miracle drug, if ever there was one.

Women in developing countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Angola and beyond still lack access to medical clinics that offer female exams or prescriptions. Many women in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East still preside over families that are too big to support on the meager earnings of hardly educated parents who struggle just to stay alive from day to day. One little pill can solve so many ills.

With all the news of child brides and young victims of global trafficking, ever wonder why a family would assent to a pre-teen daughter marrying a man decades older, or sell their daughter as a servant to a family they've never met, or succumb to traffickers who promise grandiose jobs in far away lands? Perhaps because they have too many children -- too many mouths to feed. Marrying off their daughters, or trading them in back room deals as best they can is a way for these families to lessen the number of mouths at home, and gain some much needed income into households where women with few resources care for multiple children and men do their best in staid economies with little opportunity. The most viable commodity in many parts of the world, are girls. Emboldened by custom, families readily deal in their "extra" daughters -- never mind that those girls may be unrecognizably bruised and battered inside and out by the time they're 30.

Around that same age, a woman in the Western world may just be emerging from graduate school and eyeballing her future with excitement. Most emancipated women in their 30s are just beginning to realize what they can achieve and what opportunities lie ahead -- whether by virtue of marriage and a controlled family or by way of a career and financial success.

I remember 30. I lived in NYC and was in my first year of law school. I could barely contain my glee at the prospects of "tomorrow." I took a daily run along the banks of the Hudson and looked out beyond the grimy water hosting the slow chugging tug-boats, and imagined my highest hopes coming to life as I journeyed through my three mile jog. Nothing stood in my way, other than my own decisions. Not tradition. Not an old man in a dank place waiting to take my dreams away. Not brothers or sisters who needed me to work and feed them instead of going to school.

Today I look at the plight of women around the world and can't help but wonder why civilization hasn't arrived at a consensus to help curb random population growth, and give women a chance to thrive by bestowing upon them the universal right to reproduce with a plan. Uncontrolled births and unmanageably large families endanger the lives of the girls disproportionately more than the boys. Girls become a commodity that must remain marketable. Educated girls are often less desirable than uneducated girls in impoverished corners of the world where women should be fit for compliant reproduction. The cycle keeps the girls at home, the men at the reins, and births high.

To be sure, women can be empowered in many ways. Micro loans are among the most successful ways that foundations and NGO's have been able to economically and, by extension, personally empower women. Technology has played a pivotal role in women's empowerment in disadvantaged parts of the world where, for example, clean fuel burning cookstoves have transformed the deadly task of cooking to a less risky endeavor, and video cameras have helped women chronicle their lives and post them for the world to comprehend. Change is surely on the horizon for many women who may, in the 21st century, attain an education of the kind their grandmothers could barely conceptualize. One pivotal tool toward realizing this emancipation is a little pill -- not between the knees but between the lips. Perhaps in this year of International Women's Day 101, something as simple as the birth control pill, with all its attendant virtues, can get shipped off to far-away lands where women and girls need all the miracles they can get.

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