A new agenda for the world’s women

What’s behind the discovery that women are the world’s greatest unexploited resource for fighting poverty and terrorism?
Carolyn Moynihan | Sep 12 2009 | comment  

If you think the world is going to hell in a handcart, stop worrying; there are plenty of would-be saviours around. Philosopher Peter Singer, as we noted on this site last week, says a voluntary transfer of cash from the rich to the poor would save the world from poverty. New Scientist is working on a “Blueprint for a better world” starting with such bright ideas as scepticism about common sense, legalising drugs, and entrusting everyone’s DNA to the police. And The New York Times believes that “Saving the World’s Women” is the way to go. It probably is, so let’s see what’s new on the women’s agenda.

Admittedly, we hear a lot about saving the women of the developing world. Usually, it is from the “sexual and reproductive health” crowd, whose answer to dangerous childbirth, infant mortality, hunger, disease the abuse of women -- and practically everything else -- is contraception, sterilisation and abortion. Just this month they gathered in Berlin to complain about lack of progress on that front in many countries and to call for “universal access to sexual and reproductive health information and services by 2015”.

The New York Times’ dossier of articles, leading with “The Women’s Crusade” by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, comes at the women’s agenda from a different angle: unlocking the economic and strategic potential of women in the poorer countries. The basic idea is that third world women represent a relatively untapped labour force and that, by educating and channelling them into the formal economy, all sorts of other things will change -- not least, the extremism of male-dominated cultures (think, Afghanistan).

The point is that advancing women’s rights in developing nations is not peripheral to the big geopolitical questions that men wrestle with, but central. And the male bigwigs of the world need to be convinced of this because, frankly, they tend to start playing with their BlackBerries or nodding off when the women’s question arises. They need to understand that when you equip a girl for the workforce or finance her mother into a small business, you are taking an important step towards pulling half the world out of poverty and breaking down the exclusive male culture that breeds suicide bombers and all kinds of terrorism.

That is the argument of Kristof and WuDunn, and with them, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And it’s a good one, so far. Education is a basic human right, and the opportunity to be gainfully employed is essential for all women who need to support themselves or their families. Ideally, that would include all young women, to increase their freedom in choosing a path in life and to remove the temptation -- particularly dangerous in poor countries -- of trading in sex.

It is a fair guess, though, that most women in the developing world will see their education and paid work primarily as an investment in the family -- either the one they already have or the one they hope to have. Marriage and motherhood are still basic aspirations of the vast majority of the world’s women, whether they live in Kenya or Kentucky.

And this is where the salvation offered by the Times’ campaigners begins to lose its shine, because they present it as something that fundamentally changes relationships in the family.

For example: An abused Pakistani wife establishes a flourishing embroidery business with the help of a microfinance agency. She becomes the main breadwinner for her family, on better than equal terms with her husband (whose boss she now is), is able to send her three daughters to school and is no longer despised because she has not produced a son.

A Zimbabwean woman, deprived of an education and also badly abused by her husband, leaves him behind completely as she pursues higher education and takes her five children along with her.

Both husbands, to be sure, were in urgent need of reform. And it is true that there are too many like them in the third world, that the dignity and rights of women are often trampled on there. But the dignity of women does not exactly shine in the first world either, where women are routinely treated as sexual objects and many discover that a career and an independent income is poor compensation for the vanishing prospect of marriage and motherhood.

So the question arises: What is the ultimate vision of the new women’s crusade? Is it one that values all the potential of women, including their crucial role within the family? Or is it one that wants to subordinate women and the family to an economic and geopolitical agenda?

That the latter might be the case is hinted at in the Times articles. Kristof, a staunch birth control believer, points out that when women get involved in the economy they not only swell the formal workforce but they delay childbearing, thus producing “a demographic dividend” for the country as well. And one of the things those Pakistani women talk about at their microfinance meetings is family planning; another baby, after all, could set the business back.

Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State and flag-bearer for women’s issues in the Obama administration, observes in an interview:

“A woman who is safe enough in her own life to invest in her children and see them go to school is not going to have as many children. The resource battles over water and land will be diminished. This is all connected. And it’s an issue of how we take hard power and soft power, so called, and use it to advance not just American ends but, in advancing global progress, we are making the world safer for our own children.”

Probably true, but one feels that those assisting her in making women and girls a “signature” policy issue of the administration might be gals who leave nothing to chance. Mrs Clinton has selected Melanne Verveer as director of a new State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has put Senator Barbara Boxer in charge of a new subcommittee that deals with women’s issues. Both women are reproductive rights cheerleaders.

The term “sexual and reproductive health” as a slogan for the liberation of third world women dates from the mid-1990s after “population control” became discredited. Now that everyone is thoroughly fed up with hearing about “reproductive rights” the movement is certainly due for a new cloak. Perhaps it can be made from the new discovery that women are the world’s greatest unexploited resource for fighting poverty and terrorism. Women will see through it, of course, but they should take the education and the microfinance and the fistula hospitals all the same -- take what they need, and leave the rest.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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