Empowering the World’s Women

23cover-395.jpg This Sunday’s New York Times’ Magazine had a special and resonant theme: “Saving the World’s Women.” The magazine had a descriptive collection of articles well-worth reading. They covered subjects including the challenge of educating young girls in Afghanistan, an interview with Hillary Clinton covering the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in relation to women’s rights, a troubling trend of gender selection in developing countries, and a growing branch of philanthropy in which women support women’s causes. The cover article, “The Women’s Crusade,” is an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s upcoming book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” I’ll highlight a few of the most important problems and solutions illustrated in the issue here, but the whole magazine is well worth reading, and much of it focuses on South Asia and issues relevant to South Asia. The cover article speaks urgently about the world’s “missing women”:

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is striking…“More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in 1990…Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today.

Tragically, another article, “the daughter deficit,” points out that as development progresses in China and India, sexual selection actually becomes even worse. As women become better educated, they have less children, and the implied urgency of having a boy ironically increases than if they had many children:

In Punjab, then India’s richest state, which had a high rate of female literacy and a high average age of marriage…the prejudice for sons flourished. Along with Haryana, Punjab had the country’s highest percentage of so-called missing girls — those aborted, killed as newborns or dead in their first few years from neglect. Here was a puzzle: Development seemed to have not only failed to help many Indian girls but to have made things worse.

There are many more striking facts about the oppression of women globally: 1% of the world’s landowners are women, a woman in India has a 1-in-70 chance of dying in childbirth, girls in India 1-5 years of age are 50% more likely to die than boys their age, 1 million children work in Asia’s sex trade, “bride burnings” take place in India every two hours, and much more harrowing information that is important to read. But for all the bad news, there is also a lot of inspiring news in the magazine. It illustrates that simple steps taken to help educate and empower the world’s women can have a dramatic effect on the problems of poverty and extremism. (The good news after the jump….) The description of Saima Muhammad’s story is particularly powerful. A woman in Lahore, Pakistan, Saima used to be beaten by her unemployed, deadbeat husband every afternoon, and her husband’s family’s mistreatment of her wrecked her spirit. Yet when she thought she had hit an emotional low, she signed up for a microloan from Kashf Foundation, and using the initial $65 seed, created a thriving embroidery small business that allowed her to “pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.” She is making sure all her three daughters get an education, and her husband now “accepts orders” from her.

The notable part of this story is not only the effect microfinance had on Saima, but also the effect that the microloan will have on future generations. She will now be able to educate her children, which will hopefully allow them to all become productive, self-sustaining, politically moderate members of Pakistani society and in turn empower more productive, self-sustaining, politically moderate members of Pakistani society. Microfinance is just one of the tools that effectively empowers women in some of the world’s most oppressive countries; thing as simple as providing free textbooks, uniforms for school, improving maternity care, and eliminating iodine deficiencies can also do wonders to improve gender equality, and thus, improve life in the country as a whole. The many writers in the magazine make a convincing case that empowering women is absolutely necessary for a prosperous and peaceful world.

There are a variety of suggestions for ways in which you (yes you, personally!) can help empower women in developing countries: It suggests giving a microloan on Kiva, sponsoring a girl through Plan USA or Women for Women International, advocate at CARE, or finding your own cause that excites you. The magazine left me sure that simple steps to empower women really can change our world.

57 thoughts on “Empowering the World’s Women

  1. “Doesn’t the term “social justice” imply the necessity of creating a just society moreso than merely justice for women? Because if you preoccupy yourself inordinately with the interests of one individual group to the exclusion of others then pursuing the latter will end up damaging the former.”

    This I think is an important point. but it’s just my opinion.

  2. “one of the places to start (esp among desis) is to split wedding costs and eliminate dowrys.”

    Also, another opinion of mine is that wedding costs can be brought down in general by de-emphasizing spending a lot of money on these weddings. Again, this opinion is just representing myself, and people around the world are free to do as they chose.

  3. There is a real tangible cost to adding a family member as opposed to measuring the intangible of performing household work.

    Tangible and intangible are not descriptions of economics – they’re ways of discussing whether or not you can and are willing to measure economic activity in numbers. If you want it more simply – product of all work that the woman does which is not of direct benefit to her = income to someone else (family, society, neighbor, etc.). All consumption that the woman has (food, clothing, etc.) that she does not pay for herself = cost to someone else (family, society, neighbor, etc.). I say the first is greater than the second. The original commenter asked if the second is greater than the first. to conclusively demonstrate either proposition would take a lot of work. This is what economists (and particularly feminist economists) try to do. However, there is no theoretical reason why one shuold compeltely discount economic activity (i.e. labor that produces services, goods, or somethign else) that someone does and simply look at what is already being counted – if we were going to do that, then India’s GDP would be like a fifth of what it is or something, because the informal economy wouldn’t be counted.

    An unemotional analysis can quantify it.

    By all means, go for it. Quantify the costs of 9 months of labor and who those benefits accrue to and in what quantitiies (or units) or the number of convesrations a mother has with a child in its first five years in terms of the educational value to the child (and consequently to society for the child as a future worker). You’re talking about stuff that people have argued over for generations (like how to measure economic value – marx says in labor hours or something like it, marginalists have an entirely different take on it, feminist economists argue something different, etc.).

    As for passing inheritance to daughter, no formal avenue ever existed in 5000 years of Indian society. Again, the social consequences have been very undesirable, the original intent was probably not deliberate.

    I have a number objections to this, but just one is important here – why does the intent matter? If something is undesirable, and it is recognised that it is undesirable, who cares what the itnent was except insofar as it mattesr in finding a solution.

    It is not in Indian nature for 20 men to sit in a room smoking hooka and coming up with a plan to control society.

    I know. After work, they sit in their living rooms, resting comfortably while their daughters and sons and wives or household servants (also often female) do their dishes for them and wash their clothes and make their tea. You don’t have to come with a plan if you already control everything. but some of them try anyway, and they sit in Parliament, in state legislatures, in the bureaucracies, in ministries, as judges, as barristers, as the head of companies etc etc etc

  4. Here is the clinic in Blaine, Washington http://www.koalalabs.com/office.asp Look at the name of the 2 people and only 2 languages that they serve you in. Last time I checked Vancouver is a very multicultural place people of many groups, so why wouldn’t they have people to serve those groups.

    Also note the phone numbers for the Blaine, WA clinic are area code 604, Vancouver’s area code, not area code 360, western Washington state’s area code.

    Gee, I wonder who are the main patients of that clinic…