Sasso: UN overlooks strength of real women

(Indianapolis Star, November 1, 2016)

Recently the United Nations in its effort to advance women’s issues, appointed an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls around the globe.

Ironically, it wasn’t one of the seven qualified female candidates who were overlooked in the election of the new UN secretary general. It wasn’t Oby Ezekweskili, vice president for the World Bank’s African Division, who started the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign to return the Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. It wasn’t Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, who has championed gender equality and chaired UN task forces on gender. It wasn’t Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her continued work on girls’ educational opportunities; Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education. It wasn’t any of a number of women from around the world who have led advocacy and grass-roots efforts to promote women’s welfare.

Instead of selecting one of these female leaders, the United Nations appointed Wonder Woman as the honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. That’s right – they did not choose a real woman, but a cartoon character! Somehow they believe that this choice sends a strong message about gender-based violence and greater participation of women in public life.

Perhaps we should not be all that surprised. The UN is behind on its pledge of gender parity in senior appointments. Some UN peacekeepers are known to sexually abuse civilians.

The United Nations Women Empowerment Principles include the following:

1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality

2. Treat all women and men fairly at work — support human rights and nondiscrimination

3. Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers

4. Promote education, training and professional development for women

5. Implement enterprise practices that empower women

6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy

7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality

Despite some advances, these goals are far from being met. The UN is aware of the atrocities committed against women and girls in war-ravaged countries. Reports of abuse against Iraqi and Syrian women continue. South Sudanese women and girls are raped by armed men with total impunity. There are numerous examples of the political marginalization of women in public life and decision-making.

It is hard to understand how a cartoon figure can impact the lack of female leadership around the world. Globally, 65 million girls are not in school. Of the 1.3 billion people in poverty world-wide, 70% are women. According to World Bank data, women ages 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria. It is estimated that one in five women worldwide will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her life time.

Wonder Woman’s dress and physique may appeal to the fantasy of some men, but it is hard to see how she can possibly make a difference regarding the serious issues facing women around the world. Wonder Woman does have some extraordinary traits. She is said to be able to run at 60 miles per hour, lift a 50,000-pound boulder over her head and possess phenomenal scientific knowledge. It is good to have a female cartoon character who is both strong and smart, but what we need in order to lift the much heavier barriers to women’s empowerment is a real woman!

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.