Believe it or not, there has never been a better time to be a woman.
Over the past century, the world has made leaps and bounds in advancing women’s empowerment. For example, did you know that women around the world now have the longest life expectancy than they ever had before — from a 54-year expected lifespan in 1960 to a 74-year expected lifespan in 2016?
Or that maternal mortality rate has been cut nearly in half since the 1900s? Or that fewer women live in extreme poverty and more have access to an education than ever before?
And what about the civil rights of women around the world? In the past few years we have seen historic, unprecedented accomplishments. Just a decade ago, it was unthinkable for a woman to drive in Saudi Arabia, and now you can see them driving around town on the way to the grocery store or the mall. Dozens of countries, too, are getting rid of laws and practices that for decades have discriminated against women. One such case is India, which last September criminalized the so-called triple talaq practice whereby Muslim men could instantly divorce their wives simply by repeating the word divorce three times.
But just because these may be the best of times for women so far in history, it doesn’t mean they are ideal. In fact, despite all the progress we have made, for many women these are still the worst of times.
In too many parts of the world, women face unspeakable injustice, violence and oppression. And I believe nowhere is this miscarriage of justice and violation of human rights worse than in modern-day slavery.
The Global Slavery Index, an initiative of the Walk Free Foundation, estimates that more than 40 million men, women, and children across the world live in modern slavery. Of these, 71 percent are women and girls.
Now, whenever people talk about modern-day slavery, they usually think of clandestine operations where women are abducted or held against their will and forced into prostitution. That does happen —as proven by the recent case in Florida in which the owner of the Patriots was caught visiting a massage parlor where women believed to have been trafficked from China were forced to perform sexual services. In America alone, the sex industry behind the ubiquitous massage parlors is worth $3 billion a year.
But in countries such as Thailand, modern-day slavery is not necessarily hidden in the shadows. In Thailand — where daughters are expected to be the main breadwinners of their families — many women are pulled into the sex industry not by force but by poverty.
Young women who grew up in poor, rural villages are lured to the big cities by the prospect of job opportunities. Once they arrive, however, they often find their lack of education leaves them with one choice — working in the city’s booming, red-light district.
I have walked through the red-light districts of Bangkok and Pattaya, and I’ll never forget what I’ve witnessed in those alleyways: women, lining up in bars along the streets, with numbers pinned to their clothes. Men — including Western tourists — choose the ones they like as if they were deciding from a menu what to have for dinner.
These women, who are sometimes barely teenagers, should not have to sell their bodies to survive. In fact, in the 21st century, modern-day slavery should be a relic of the past.
This Friday is International Women’s Day, an annual observance to celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness about women’s issues around the world. The theme for this year is #BalanceforBetter, fighting for gender balance in the workplace and beyond. Because when the playing field is level, women can change the world.
One way World Help is helping further that goal is by providing a baking kitchen in Pattaya — the heart of Thailand’s sex industry — to teach women how to bake. Baking is cutting edge in Thailand. Most people don’t have ovens in their homes. But cafés are becoming trendy, and baked goods are in high demand, which means trained bakers are in high demand, too.
It may seem small, but learning how to bake empowers Thai women to decide what kind of lives they want to live. And when every woman has that power of choice, we will truly be living in the best of times.
Noel Yeatts is an active advocate for social justice and humanitarian needs around the world. With over 20 years of experience in humanitarian work, Noel is an author, speaker, and the President of World Help, an international, Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of impoverished communities around the world. Noel regularly takes the stage for speaking engagements and advocacy events around the country and has been widely recognized for her groundbreaking book, "Awake: Doing a World of Good One Person at a Time." Follow her on Instagram (@NoelYeatts) and on Twitter (@NoelYeatts). To learn more about World Help visit WorldHelp.net. For speaking engagements, visit NoelYeatts.com. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.