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Correspondence (October 29, 2001)

Scout's honor


Thank you for printing "Big Tent," by Benjamin Soskis (September 17). As the mother of a gay son, I believe there is no greater organization he could belong to than the Boy Scouts of America. He deserves the same ability to learn to camp, to serve his community, and to become a leader as any other boy. I can think of no finer role model for him than someone like James Dale, who came up through the ranks of scouting to earn his Eagle. Why must Dale hide his sexual orientation? Because there are many in scouting who don't want their churches' teachings that homosexuals are abominations to be challenged by letting boys meet a real-life gay man who embodies the values that scouting promotes.

Woodinville, Washington

Watch your mouth


Siddhartha Mukherjee brings up an issue dear to my heart: the health of the millions of uninsured Americans ("Heal Thyself" September 17). However, I take issue with his putting dentists "at the bottom of the list" for "framing Washington's health care policy debates." Dentists are crucial to America's health care. Chronic oral infections have been linked to increases in bacterial pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, and pre-term, low birth-weight babies. Twenty-five percent of U.S. children and adolescents have 80 percent of the country's tooth decay, and these children are often uninsured. Twenty-one percent of tenth graders in California are in urgent need of dental care for intense decay, pain, or infection. These problems can cause difficulty eating, sleeping, speaking, learning, playing, and working. This year 8,000 Americans will die from oral and pharynx cancer. The simple truth is that oral health is an alarmingly neglected part of the health care and social service system.

Valley Village, California

Health care


Amartya Sen eloquently probes the phenomenon of misogyny, concluding that gender inequality imposes social costs on both men and women and defies an "all-purpose remedy" ("The Many Faces of Gender Inequality" September 17). But his exploration of the multiple inequalities faced by women and girls omits one major factor: violence against women.

Sen attributes unusually high mortality rates for women in some regions to the "widespread neglect of health, nutrition, and other interests of women that influence their survival." While that is certainly true, Human Rights Watch's research indicates that more insidious forces contribute to these grim statistics. Governments worldwide fail to protect women from violence. Women suffer severe and sometimes fatal injuries inflicted by intimate partners, injuries exacerbated by discriminatory health care and official neglect. Official statistics in the Russian Federation indicate that 14,000 women are killed by husbands or family members each year. Thousands more suffer injuries only to confront police officers who refuse to issue reports or provide protection.

In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Justice, approximately 1.5 million women are raped and/or physically assaulted by their current or former husbands, partners, or boyfriends each year, making domestic violence a leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44. In Pakistan, of 215 cases of women suspiciously burned to death in their Lahore homes in 1997, authorities took suspects into custody in only six instances. And in Uzbekistan, state officials continue to coerce women to return to battering husbands, sacrificing their safety and health for family cohesion. Uzbek authorities prosecute violent men most often only after the victim commits suicide, as in the case of a battered woman who drank concentrated vinegar after a particularly severe beating in June 2001. Domestic violence also contributes to maternal deaths around the world: In India a 1996 study revealed that 16 percent of all deaths during pregnancy in Maharastra stemmed from domestic violence.

Sen has provided a brilliant exposé on gender discrimination. But we cannot ignore that one of the faces of inequality is gender-based violence. Maimed, raped, beaten, and sometimes even killed with impunity, these "missing women" have been invisible for too long.

Women's Rights Division
Human Rights Watch
Washington, D.C.


Martina E. Vandenberg is absolutely right: Violence against women is a major source of gender inequality. She is also right to point out that a significant proportion of female mortality relates in some way to the violence that women encounter. I will not argue with her whether my classification of different types of gender inequality "omits" this phenomenon, as she argues, rather than including them under differently classified categories—in particular "mortality" (including what I called "the brutal form of unusually high mortality rates") and "household inequality" (including "fundamental inequalities in gender relations within the family or the household"). No matter how the classificatory issue is addressed, there is a very strong case for following Vandenberg in focusing more on different types of violence against women.

I must, however, add a supplementary point. The number of women who perish from nonviolent discrimination tends to be substantially larger than those who die from physical violence. For example, even if we fully agree with the estimate that 16 percent of all deaths during pregnancy in Maharastra stem from domestic violence (that number from a 1996 study has been disputed), the remainder of maternal mortality, which relates to undernourishment and medical neglect, is extremely high. This is important to note since nonviolent and less visible discrimination, which kills many more women, tends to get even less attention in the media than does physical violence. The scandalous statistic of 215 cases of women burned to death in Lahore certainly calls for much more media interest, but that would be easier to generate (indeed, the Pakistani press has already reported many of these cases) than media interest in the millions of young girls who quietly perish from unequal care in health and nutrition. To recognize this media bias does not, of course, contradict anything Vandenberg says in her illuminating letter.