Sustaining Opportunities for Women

By Sarah Sorensen
August 24, 2009

I haven't been able to get the recent New York Times article, "the Women's Crusade," by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, out of my mind. It's not the stories or statistics that haunt me - though I admit upon reading, they simultaneously made my heart ache and my blood boil. It's the realization that so little has changed over the years. Why is it that with all of our modern day advances, we have been unable to truly move the plight of women forward around the world? Why is the brutality tolerated?

None of what they reported is really new... Amartya Sen's analysis that was referenced in the article estimated more than 100 million missing women in the world back in 1990. In 2002, the World Health Organization's World Report on Violence and Health identified "in surveys from around the world, 10-69% of women report being physically assaulted by an intimate male partner at some point in their lives." And then there are the myriad of reports on women and children trafficking , bride burnings and general acts of oppression that come out from time to time (though not frequently or prominently enough, if you ask me):

---Interpol estimated in 2001 it generates $19 billion annuallly
---India's National Crime Records statistics found over 58,000 incidents of dowry harassment and over 6,700 dowry murders in 2005 - which is up significantly from just ten years earlier - in 1994 there were 25,946 cases of dowry harassment and 4,935 recorded dowry deaths
---Women are routinely denied an education and marginalized both within their immediate family units and the society at large (Human Rights Watch periodically publishes statistics)

Sarah is the author of The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.

The Sustainable Network demonstrates how we can tackle challenges, ranging from energy conservation to economic and social innovation, using the global network -- of which the public Internet is just one piece. This book demystifies the power of the network, and issues a strong call to action.

What's alarming is that despite laws being passed, such as the Indian Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, and international pressure being applied, such as Amnesty International's Stop Violence Against Women campaign, the statistics have remained the same (and are even on the rise in some areas) for so long. Why? Deep rooted attitudes and social norms persist that allow for the continued brutality, held in place, in large part, by impoverished conditions that provide very few possibilities for improvement (real or perceived).

While awareness and pressures to create change are critical, real change will likely only come when there is greater opportunity. And this is where the network can play a role. As the network permeates more and more parts of the world, it can be used to connect women to the information and resources they need to create opportunities for improvement. It opens up access - to education, social services and the world's markets. All of which are critical components for the disruption of the devastaing cycles of subjugation and violence against women. As noted, in the article, when women have control they tend to spend the money on food, shelter, health care and education, all of which create healthier children and a more productive society.

One key is create the economic opportunities. While "critics note that there has been no correlation between amounts of aid going to countries and their economic growth rates," there certainly is a correlation between broadband penetration and economic potential. In fact, its one reason broadband penetration is a leading economic indicator (see OECD statistics), used to determine a country's overall vibrancy. So, what if we did a better job of combining programs that extend the network's access with those that target women.

For example, the success that microfinancing, targeted towards women, has had on combatting poverty has been well documented. The network makes it easy to extend the model to locations where traditional financial institutions and infrastructure may not exist. It's the basis for the success of organizations like and FINCA - who have made it easy for people to go online and make a difference in the lives of enterprising people around the world. What if we did more of that?

What if we placed more emphasis on creating access to the network and teaching women to use it to get the information and ongoing support they need? (Note, use of technology wasn't even mentioned in the NY Times article.) Now, I recognize there are basic needs that need to be met first, however, think how much a cell phone - which can deliver news, local market prices, health care alerts, weather, etc. - could help. Or how many women and children could benefit from all the information and connections they can make via the web - e.g. online tutorials, educational materials, social services and resources, etc.? Shouldn't efforts try to include a network (and technology) component to help extend the education and general outreach efforts? The goal is to create sustainable change, and we already know, from our own lives that the network is good at doing that.

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