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Waking Up the Church to Gender Injustice
Image: David Smoler
Waking Up the Church to Gender Injustice

In 2009, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn published Half the Sky, a heartbreaking overview of the many horrific ways women are devalued and discriminated against in the world today. This fall their documentary by the same title aired on Public Broadcasting Service. Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, invited Kristof to share the stage with him in lieu of a sermon during weekend services earlier this year. For 40 minutes, Willow churchgoers sat rapt in astonishment as Kristof recounted stories of women from his book. When he told about a woman suffering with a fistula who had been shunned by her village and left to die alone outside the camp where she had to fend off hyenas and drag herself across the desert to find medical care, the congregation collectively gasped. He went on to describe the Cambodian brothel where he bought two prostitutes in an attempt to rescue them from a life of sex slavery. Few people made it through the interview with dry eyes.

I met with Kristof in between services to discuss sex-selective abortions, one of the basest forms of "gendercide"—a term used to describe the deliberate extermination of girls and women—and what the church's role should be in ending this particular form of oppression.

How do you wake up Americans to the problem of gendercide when it's something that happens mostly in other countries?

It's hard to get people to care about 100 million missing females. I think it's a little easier to get them to care about one particular girl who is dying because her parents don't think it's important to feed a daughter or get healthcare to her. Once that pathway is cleared to care about individuals, then I think one can broaden the context and explain the larger problem.

Ultrasound is a major culprit in sex-selective abortions. What's the solution?

There probably isn't any effective strategy against sex-selective abortion. Plus, there's a sad study showing that where sex selective abortion is not in place, more female babies die of neglect because parents end up with daughters they don't want. To some degree one can try to change norms about the value of girls, and create retirement systems so people who don't have a son won't be destitute in old age. It's a battle, and it's going to get worse as more people get access to ultrasound. In India it's in the richer states, so as it moves into the rural areas, we'll see more and more sex-selective abortions. If you think the situation is bad now, wait 25 years and it's going to be much worse.

In China, there's a growing appreciation that they're going to be running out of labor. The aging of the labor force is such that they may need to enforce birth-spacing rather than defend a cast-iron policy. I think there will be a relaxing of the one-child policy. China feels like it's moving in the right direction, while in India, we're moving in exactly the wrong direction.

Both India and China are putting an emphasis on valuing girls. And some American pastors are teaching on the sanctity of life in China to good effect. Won't these efforts to save the girl-child and the rapid rise of Christianity in China help stem the tide of gendercide?

It's true, the rapid rise of Christianity in China is going to have far-reaching effects. I can see the pro-life attitude gaining more traction. I'm skeptical that it would become so widespread as to have a big impact, but I think it could be a force. It's also true that China is beginning to value daughters more, and they're beginning to see that daughters often look after their own parents more than sons do, even though it's not their traditional responsibility. I think China is changing and people in the cities are beginning to value daughters. South Korea's a good example of sex ratios at birth getting better. It seems to me China's a few years behind South Korea but likewise headed in the right direction. India and Pakistan are substantially behind the hump, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. India's efforts will make a difference, but it's a long, slow effort to change culture, while ultrasounds are rising rapidly in areas. The change in ultrasound access is going to swamp the change in valuing daughters.

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Waking Up the Church to Gender Injustice