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(Photo Credit: Her Dignity)

(Photo Credit: Her Dignity)

Kristin Rudolph (@kristin_rudolph)

“We need to open our eyes to the almost nauseating variety of ways that women and girls are exploited and commodified, used and abused, neglected and ignored,” said Paige Comstock Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD) on International Women’s Day this year. On March 8th, the CBHD launched their new, much needed initiative, the Her Dignity Network to promote women’s health worldwide at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

The CBHD is a Christian bioethics research center at Trinity International University, and it launched the Network to address the extreme abuses women of all ages face around the world. It aims to “connect a global network of people and organizations who share two basic ideas: first, that women’s dignity is ultimately about human dignity, and, second, that female bodies and health are essential aspects of both her dignity and our common humanity.”

Cunningham highlighted the inadequacy of human rights and social justice as the foundation for improving the status of women around the world. “The unborn child was edited out of the goals of social justice,” and “universal declarations of human rights are written by people in power, and they can be changed by people in power,” she explained. Cunningham described the Network’s foundation in seeing all women “As image bearers, [who] show the signs of a good, creative, and a compassionate God. Our status as image bearers is the source of our dignity.” She warned: “To neglect the dignity of others is the path to decay and destruction.”

Cunningham emphasized how the Network applies human rights “consistently throughout the entire lifespan, from conception through death … We don’t carve out exceptions such as for girls in the womb, and then wring our hands when it’s almost exclusively girls that are aborted.” Further, “We ground our ethics in Christian theology and philosophy … Other organizations put women’s rights and social justice front and center but there is no mention of the woman as a spiritual being,” she said.

Cunningham stated the Network will “mobilize support for on the ground care, by identifying projects that align with the guiding principles. We’ll highlight organizations that share the love of Christ.” She encouraged those in attendance to participate by joining, supporting, and praying for the Network.”

Following Cunningham’s remarks, Dr. Jameela George, a medical doctor and the executive director of the Centre for Bioethics, India shared a snapshot of the horrifying abuses girls and women experience around the world. Dr. George discussed varieties of discrimination against women in her native country of India, as it “represents the vast majority of problems around the globe.” The “violence in the life cycle of women … is shocking. The problem starts before birth, it continues into infancy, girlhood, adolescence, adulthood, and elderly, into widowhood,” Dr. George observed.

Tragically, discrimination happens within the family, and is often perpetuated by women against their own daughters. Dr. George told about her experience with one family who had twins – a boy and a girl – and when the parents brought the boy for immunizations but not the girl, Dr. George told them to leave and come back with both children. 300,000 more girls than boys die each year in India, and sex-selective abortion is a pervasive problem. Families rush boys to receive immunizations and medical treatment, but girls are left vulnerable to disease and malnourished.

Education, Dr. George explained, is another area of discrimination, especially as girls care for their younger siblings and are forced to work. The dowry system creates an incentive for families to not educate girls also, because the families of equally educated men would demand higher dowries.

“Honor killings … for going against the will and norms of the community” take the lives of about 20,000 women worldwide each year, Dr. George said, with an estimate three per day in Pakistan alone. Trafficking is another well known horror, as is domestic violence. Sometimes, women believe there are situations their husbands are justified in beating them, she explained, which illustrates how women in these oppressive cultures perceive themselves and their value.

Women do not have control of their own reproductive health, Dr. George said. Instead, a woman’s in-laws will harass her and pressure her to have boys and abort girls, resulting in forced abortions and sterilizations. Women with mental or physical disabilities are often abused and neglected, and widows are treated with sheer contempt. Dr. George described how widows are referred to as “husband eaters” and “It,” are forced to shave their heads, barred from social gatherings and public settings, and younger widows are often sexually abused by their deceased husband’s brothers.

Despite all these horrors, Dr. George said “it’s not all gloom.” “If you bring dignity to one girl, down the line,” that girl will influence those in her life for good. Dr. George concluded, “Things are changing … I think together we can do it.”

The event also featured a discussion on the practical implications of women’s dignity, with panelists from Catholic Relief Services, World Relief, and the Foundation for Social and Cultural Advancement.