Argument

Lean Forward

Why there's finally cause for celebration this International Women's Day

International Women's Day usually feels like a quaint -- or even hypocritical -- 24-hour attempt to try to make up for a year's worth of outrages against women. But this year it feels different. We are nearing a tipping point.

Yes, conditions are still horrific for women in many, if not most, places across the globe. I know because I collect data on violence against women and related issues as part of my ongoing research on the WomanStats Project. Every day I open my inbox to find a new pit of grief, such as the recent story of three little sisters in India, ages 6, 9, and 11, raped and drowned at the bottom of a well. The saying, "What fresh hell is this?" could only have been coined by a woman.

But the case of India is instructive. On most scales of gender-based violence, such as WomanStats' physical security index, India ranks as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. And the country's highly abnormal sex ratio favoring males indicates that the value placed on the life of a woman in India is one of the lowest worldwide. On broader indices, such as the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index examining educational attainment, political representation, health, and the economic status of women, India ranks an embarrassing 105th out of 135 countries.

But lately the stories don't end there. In the case of the three little girls in India, the local police officer in charge has been suspended and replaced because he did not act swiftly enough. This is highly unusual, as local police are typically only removed for acts of commission, not acts of omission. What has clearly tipped the scales was the public reaction to the ghastly gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi this past December -- thousands took to the streets, even shutting down roads -- and a belated realization by public authorities that what was once tolerable is now intolerable. In February, the new political reality solidified, with the Indian government implementing a new set of laws that not only permit the death penalty if a rape victim dies, but also criminalize certain offenses against women that had always occupied a gray area where authorities could effectively overlook them with impunity. What were previously perceived as lesser offenses -- voyeurism, stalking, acid attacks, and even the trafficking of women -- are finally to be considered real crimes against women. (The measures are still awaiting ratification in the Indian Parliament, though they went into effect last month.)

The important change here is that public opinion seems to be shaping a consensus that Indian authorities must be held accountable for condoning impunity for these crimes. A commission established by the Indian government in the aftermath of December's rape has urged that police officers be arrested if they do not investigate crimes against women and that soldiers finally be subject to criminal penalties if they rape women, as they often do in east India. The commission's report concluded, "The nation has to account for the tears of millions of women." The fact that the wink-and-nod collusion between male government representatives and male perpetrators is increasingly seen as unacceptable does not simply mean the Indian government is becoming more enlightened. It means public opinion is tangibly shifting against the impunity and the collusion. The wind has changed.

Indonesia is not India, but there are serious issues concerning women's rights in that country nonetheless. For example, Indonesia does not recognize marital rape as a crime, and the mail-order bride industry thrives in that country. The oil-rich Aceh province in the country's north implemented sharia law in 2009, and seemingly every month some new restriction on women is being put into place. For example, women now are forbidden from "straddling" a motorbike; they must ride side-saddle, which means, in essence, that they cannot drive motorcycles at all. Men are allowed up to four wives under Indonesian law if their first wife agrees, but even without his wife's assent a man knows he can find a religious figure to perform the marriage secretly anyway. Or they can be married for only an hour if they wish. Wink, wink.

But consider this: A few months ago, an Indonesian judge took a second, teenage wife. Unremarkable. The judge then divorced the girl four days later by text message. Nod, nod. But then something extraordinary happened. After public outrage, with thousands of protesters in the streets, the Supreme Court recommended the judge's dismissal and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formally dismissed him in a rare move, saying, "Don't take this matter lightly. I want this problem handled swiftly and comprehensively." This, too, is unprecedented, especially given concerns about the president's commitments to human rights in the past.

Harassment of women in public spaces has always been outrageous in Egypt, a country ranked in the worst category for women's physical security in the WomanStats scale. In one recent study, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in public. Sexual violence against women in public spaces is rising to even higher levels now in Cairo, and the assaults are no longer just groping but savage beatings and rapes.

But the outrage against this treatment also seems to be growing. Women have marched by the hundreds carrying knives and clubs, and bearing signs that threaten to cut off the hands of their attackers. And Egyptian women do not stand alone: New groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard feature scores of men in bright vests who defend women against would-be gropers, rapists, and even killers. Not only do the men physically interpose themselves, but they challenge the attackers by asking: How can you call yourself a Muslim? That's a very good question, and one that men don't ask enough of male perpetrators in a largely religious society.

Even in the United States, we're seeing incremental progress for the protection of women from violence. After last fall's election, women make up a record 19 percent of the U.S. Congress. Smirk if you will, but that figure is already translating into legislative attention to women's issues: One of the first bills President Barack Obama signed into law this year was the "Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act," which makes it a crime to knowingly transport a girl outside the country to be cut. This law is needed because families often take girls on "vacations" back to their homelands -- countries where female genital mutilation is permitted or common -- to undergo the practice. And just this week the president signed into law an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act. Slowly but surely we are filling the holes in our own legal framework that have long provided impunity for those who would hurt and exploit women.

Do we have a long way to go? Yes. Although they are accumulating worldwide, and in some of the most unlikely places, so far these signs of hope remain singular cases. I still expect my inbox will contain horrifying accounts every morning. At the WomanStats Project, we rank countries based on the level of physical security women experience, as indicated by rates of violence perpetrated against them, and since we began coding the data in 2001 no country has ever scored in the best rank -- indicating that violence levels are low and the country strictly enforces a comprehensive legal code criminalizing such violence. Some scholars have questioned why we even have a scale point for security, since it remains a null set. This International Women's Day, heartened by evidence of a tipping point in sight, I'd venture to say that we have it because one day -- perhaps sooner than any of us dreamed -- we will need it.

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Who's Winning the Great Energy Rat Race?

China just passed the United States as the world's leading oil importer. America should be happy to be No. 2.

DUBAI — It is a shift as momentous as the U.S. eclipse of Britain's Royal Navy or the American economy's surpassing of the British economy in the late 19th century.

According to preliminary figures reported this week, China has overtaken the United States as the world's largest net oil importer. Nearly 6 million barrels per day flowed into the United States in December -- the lowest figure since February 1992 -- while Chinese imports jumped to 6.12 million barrels per day. The United States had held the top spot since 1972, just before the oil crises and stagflation of the 1970s.

The exact figure is not so important: Monthly estimates are volatile, Chinese imports peak during the winter, and the United States is still a much bigger gross importer of crude oil (it exports ever larger amounts of refined products). But China will clearly move into a consistent lead during this year, or next.

Americans may not like to be second in anything, but this news actually affirms the superiority of the U.S. energy model over China's. The United States is consistently employing new technology to produce more energy in ways that are increasingly environmentally friendly. Beijing's growing weight in world oil markets, meanwhile, should not be a matter of pride, but of concern. China's rising dependency on energy imports doesn't make the country stronger -- it makes China more vulnerable to forces beyond the country's control.

Nevertheless, this is the latest in a series of milestones that illustrate the economic rise of the Middle Kingdom. In 2006, it passed the United States as the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter. In 2010, it became the world's leading energy user. Its ravenous appetite for resources makes it the biggest consumer of coal, iron ore, aluminum, copper, gold, wheat, rice, meat, and many other commodities. In the next few years, China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy -- if it has not already done so.

China's growth has been the largest single factor in the record oil prices over the last decade. That has led to a host of geopolitical consequences: the economic boom in the Persian Gulf, the empowering of authoritarian leaders from Russia's Vladimir Putin to Venezuela's late Hugo Chávez, economic stress in developed countries, rising food and fuel prices, and a new push for breakthrough energy technologies such as shale oil and gas, as well as wind and solar power.

The United States is setting energy milestones of its own. Its drop in imports is partly due to an anemic economy, which has resulted in dwindling consumption, tighter mileage standards, and an incentive for efficiency spurred by high prices. More important, however, is the U.S. boom in production, driven by the breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing, which has unlocked oil from shale deposits in North Dakota and south Texas -- with Louisiana, California, Ohio, and others to come -- and revived production from oil fields.

The Wall Street Journal also contended this week that the United States moved ahead of a different kingdom: The newspaper said the country became the world's largest liquid-fuel producer in November, surpassing Saudi Arabia. The calculation is a bit dubious, as it depends on throwing everything -- crude oil, biofuels, propane, other extracts from natural gas, gains from refinery processing -- into the bucket. Beyond the hype, however, the United States is set to become the world's biggest oil producer by 2017 and will begin exporting large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

North America, with Canada supplying the United States, might be a net oil exporter as early as 2020, according to Citigroup's veteran oil watcher, Ed Morse -- though that seems optimistic. Renewable energy has also boomed, and greenhouse gas emissions have dropped.

China's strategic purchases have, with rare exceptions, not improved its energy security. They have also landed it in political trouble abroad. After financing and arming Khartoum during Sudan's civil war, China suffered a backlash when the pipeline from newly independent South Sudan -- where most of its fields lie -- was cut over border and transit-fee disputes. Now Chinese state companies are buying stakes in American shale projects, which the United States should welcome despite some attempts to raise spurious national security concerns.

At the same time, China has tussled over speculatively oil-rich islands in the East China and South China seas with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and others, encouraging its neighbors to turn to the United States for protection. Beijing also continues to worry over long energy supply lines from the Persian Gulf and West Africa. However it solves this problem, it also must heed the fact that pollution is increasingly a hot-button political issue. In the city of Guangzhou, for example, the lungs of people in their 40s have turned black from coal smoke.

Can China repeat the United States' success? It is thought to have massive shale gas resources of its own and probably shale oil too. It also plans to use natural gas vehicles to cut oil consumption, has tougher mileage standards than the United States, and is working on electric vehicles, synthetic fuels, and renewable energy. But Beijing still has a long way to go. It does not even have a real energy ministry -- though a "super-ministry" is said to be in the works -- meaning policy responsibility is scattered across the government.

In the face of political, social, and environmental threats, Beijing has to keep the economic juggernaut rolling. Economic slowdown could not only lead to severe domestic unrest in China, but it could upset all the calculations of the world's energy companies and oil exporters.

There are dangers too for the United States in this new situation. Given that the country has spent much of the last few decades talking of "jawboning OPEC" to increase production and complaining about Russia's gas monopoly, it would be monumentally hypocritical of the United States to continue its ban on crude-oil exports or put major restrictions on LNG projects. To do so would undermine its relations with key allies such as Japan and South Korea, which are critical partners in balancing China's growing power in East Asia.

Whatever happens, the improving U.S. energy position will not cause it to abandon the Middle East. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet will not pull up its anchors in the Persian Gulf tomorrow. American oil imports from the Middle East have not yet fallen much -- Africa has borne the brunt of the decline. And even an energy self-sufficient United States would be exposed to world oil prices -- its key allies in Europe and East Asia even more so.

Washington also has other reasons -- Israel, Iran, terrorism -- to remain engaged in the Middle East. Indeed, it is booming U.S. oil production -- along with that of Iraq and Saudi Arabia -- that has allowed such stringent sanctions on Iran without triggering another great oil shock. Both producers and customers well remember how energy crises swiftly followed the end of previous Gulf security orders, such as the withdrawal of British forces from the small Gulf states in 1971 and the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979.

Nevertheless, Washington is battling a fiscal crisis, and it's searching for ways to reduce its military commitments. That has led some to wonder whether others should share more of the burden of guaranteeing energy security. The Arab Gulf states, looking nervously at America's oil boom, worry they might be left to the tender mercies of Iran. As a result, they have begun to deepen relations with their Asian customers, though predominantly with Japan and South Korea rather than China. At the moment, however, they are not worried enough about the big threat: a slump in oil prices colliding with bloated budgets.

Energy windfalls can be a blessing and a curse: An oil boom allowed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's regime to coast through the 1970s and avoid vital reform. Without drawing a false analogy between the United States and the Soviet Union, Americans should still be wary of allowing swelling oil and gas revenues to divert them from addressing deep domestic economic, environmental, and political problems, or tempt them into reckless overseas adventures. Beijing, meanwhile, may find that it is energy that compels deep changes in how it engages with its own people and the rest of the world.

AFP/Getty Images