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Contemporary human suffering is the focus of Independent Lens PBS film documentary, Half the Sky, named after the book by Kris Kristof and Wu Dunn. This documentary aired on PBS, and might  be viewable online. The 2009 book, Half the Sky, is available in hardback, paperback, and Kindle format. The DVD is generally available for purchase or rent.

The Half the Sky film relates a story of a three-year old girl arriving at a clinic with clear evidence of rape. The picture on the right captures the suffering with horror that young girls must feel when they are hunted down like prey by men seeking to sexually abuse them. In many failing societies, the boys learn that it is OK to use weapons and whatever violence is necessary to gain control over the lives of innocent females.

Kristof and WuDunn make the claim, in both the book and the film that while the last two centuries were devoted to ending human slavery as the most serious humanitarian disorder, this century will be struggling against violence toward women and girls as the single greatest humanitarian disorder of the global community today.

Half the Sky claims that violence toward women kills more women between age 15 and 45 than die from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. And a far greater number of women and girls suffer from sexual violence but remain alive, often with mental impairment.

Both the book and the film feature more stories than statistics. For example, in a chapter on “Rule by Rape,” they give the story of Ethiopian teenager Woineshet, who was severely beaten and raped many, many times by her would-be husband, but the local judge would never convict the man because their village tradition is for girl to be subjugated and punished by her male suitor or husband.

They tell a nearly identical story about Zoya in Afghanistan, except in this story the would-be mother-in-law was the one that repeatedly beat the young girl. From one beating, Zoya was not able to walk because her mother-in-law strung her upside down and beat her feet until they were useless. Their social customs approve of this type of violence intended to pass on traditions that preserve the status quo.

Other evidence that Nicholos Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have dug up includes their estimate that there are over 100 million “missing girls” lost to abortion and other rejection procedures due to the fact that, especially in Asia, boys are thought to be socio-economically much more valuable than are girls (UN Study On The Status of Women).

Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime (UN Commission on the Status of Women, 2000). According to the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in 2008, approximately 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting, with more than 3 million girls in Africa annually at risk of the practice. Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under age 16.

Even in highly developed countries like the United States, gender-based discrimination is surprisingly prevalent. Not only do women earn lower wages for the same job as do men, but women who work are also expected to do more housework and family maintenance than men do. These types episodes of mental suffering probably account for the higher incidence of depression among women compared to men.

Violence against females is an astounding problem in the United States. The National Violence against Women Survey (NVAWS) found that 17.6 percent (one out of every five American women) and 3 percent of surveyed men were raped at some point in their lifetime. Over 30 percent of female rape victims reported being injured during their most recent rape. Fifty-four percent of female victims and 71 percent of male victims were first raped before their 18th birthday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 reported that in America, the annual costs of intimate partner violence against women exceeded an estimated $5.8 billion. About two thirds of these costs are medical and the remainder due to lost work and productivity.

So, what is the answer to the question that we started with: “Is violence against women the biggest cause of human suffering today?” While we don’t know how to quantify all of the dimensions of gender-based suffering, the data available point to the distinct possibility that gender-based violence and discrimination seem to add up to the greatest source of human suffering today. This topic most certainly deserves more attention and research.