The Common Good
February 2012

Abandoning Women to Flames

by Alisa Harris | February 2012

In a country where parents lit their wounded daughters on fire, women lit themselves on fire to escape. I couldn’t shake the image of a young girl stepping into flames with a despair so ...

WHEN I Was a new reporter [for a conservative Christian publication], I was told to cover a women’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). My assignment was to report on the treaty’s treatment of the unborn, not its treatment of women, although the treaty contained not a single mention of a right to abortion. It only mentioned babies to say that both women and men have a responsibility for bringing them up and that a pregnant woman should not experience discrimination. But abortion? Not a word.

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The treaty’s text didn’t matter, my conservative Christian sources told me. The committee in charge of interpreting the document had mentioned abortion rights, and although this committee had no power to make its interpretation anything more than suggestion, they would launch an assault on nations that still prohibited abortion.

I had expected a more convincing argument—a treaty that promoted abortion rights so emphatically that its endorsement of evil outweighed its promotion of justice, education, and equality. I looked up Afghanistan’s human rights report, just to see what kind of injustice women face around the world. What I read was worse than I’d imagined—not a set of statistics, but stories of how a patriarchal society devalued and degraded and destroyed real women. A boy raped and impregnated his sister, but when the girl told her parents, she was the one they set on fire and killed. A 40-year-old husband tortured his 16-year-old wife for a year, breaking her teeth with stones and cutting off her nose and ears. Authorities didn’t investigate either crime; in fact police regularly detained women for the crime of fleeing abusive husbands and fathers. One line evoked an image that haunts me today: “Women occasionally resorted to self-immolation when they felt there was no escape from these situations.”

In a country where parents lit their wounded daughters on fire, women lit themselves on fire to escape. I couldn’t shake the image of a young girl stepping into flames with a despair so profound that she would rather scorch her own flesh than face her own future.

But when I asked conservative organizations about these hurting women and what alternative they proposed, their answers lacked consistency. On the one hand they said the U.N. had no influence to change laws about female violence; on the other it had supreme power to influence abortion laws. In one breath they said the U.N. lacked an enforcement mechanism to promote human rights; in the next they blamed the U.N. for stripping America of its sovereignty.

As I listened to an activist articulate her organization’s position on the phone, I realized there was no other way to interpret her answers: the slenderest possibility that the treaty might influence abortion law for evil outweighed any possibility that it might influence gender laws for good. She had to choose between the possibility of protecting women’s lives and the possibility of protecting unborn babies’ lives, and she chose the unborn.

I thanked her, asked her to spell her name and give me her title, hung up the phone, and cried for the girls who lit themselves on fire.

Excerpted from Raised Right by Alisa Harris. Copyright © 2011 by Alisa Harris, by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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