Are Women The New "Deserving Poor"?S

In this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn make the provocative claim that ending discrimination against women and girls may end poverty and even terrorism.

Kristof and WuDunn (the first married couple in history to win the Pulitzer Prize) argue that the "sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape" of women around the world constitute not just a humanitarian crisis, but a major source of "global poverty and extremism." We ignore the murder, abuse, and marginalization of women at our peril, they argue, because providing women with education and safety will not only improve gender equality but solve a variety of seemingly non-gender-related problems, like economic underdevelopment and terrorist violence. They make a compelling case, but it's not without its problems.

Though they've clearly done their homework, conducting in-depth interviews with women in India, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, Kristof and WuDunn can seem paternalistic at times. Especially odd is their analysis of gender and spending habits in the world. On "the dirty little secret of global poverty," they write,

[S]ome of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor - especially by men. Surprisingly frequently, we've come across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net; the mother says that the family couldn't afford a bed net and she means it, but then we find the father at a nearby bar. He goes three evenings a week to the bar, spending $5 each week.

They add that the world's poorest families spend ten times as much on "alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts" as they do on education, and that "if poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries." Their solution — focusing economic development efforts on women, who apparently tend to spend more money on education and nourishing food for their children — may be an effective one, but their statements about supposedly spendthrift men are still somewhat troubling. Is it really their place to determine what spending is wise or unwise? Might men be spending more money on alcohol than education because they don't see benefits from schooling — and might this situation be remedied by improving education and public awareness of educational opportunities, rather than cutting men out of the equation? I'm perfectly willing to believe that women in developing countries spend a larger percentage of their income on children than men are, and that this makes them a more effective vector for helping families. But the idea of selecting the "wisest" spenders, by Western standards, and then directing aid their way has a whiff of moral judgment and social engineering — it recalls the centuries-old notion of the "deserving poor." This is compounded by the suggestion that women are more docile than men, less likely to rock the boat. Kristof and WuDunn write,

It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country's population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren't fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys' locker room. [...] Indeed, some scholars say they believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.

It may be true that a society is more peaceful when women are empowered, but the idea of promoting women's equality in order to reduce terrorism is still problematic. First, as WuDunn and Kristof are no doubt aware, there are plenty of examples of female terrorists. But the very idea of helping women because they behave the way we want — not drinking, whoring, or planting bombs — implies that we have a certain ideal of how developing countries should operate, and we want to shape them according to that ideal. It's also not necessarily good for women, who must continue to behave well in order to retain their status as model recipients of aid.

This is not to say that the kind of aid Kristof and WuDunn propose — mostly microlending, which helps women become economically self-sufficient — necessarily shackles families to Western benefactors. In fact, microlending can empower women to make their own choices and assert their autonomy within families. WuDunn and Kristof tell the story of Saima Muhammad (pictured), who started a successful embroidery business with a small loan from a microfinance organization. She's now the undisputed head of her household, and no longer has any problems with her once-abusive husband. Her children, too, are doing well, bearing out Kristof and WuDunn's claim that economic independence for women is often good for kids.

Indeed, all the programs the authors support — from improving girls' education to reducing sex trafficking to repairing obstetric fistulas — are good ones. But their central thesis — that we should help women because it will reduce poverty and violence — is flawed. It relies on the notion that women are deserving of economic and social power because they are good citizens, not simply because they are human. What happens if women decide to spend their newly earned money on alcohol instead of their children's education? What if they spend it on weapons? And what if, even though they spend it on all the "right" things, their countries still fail to develop economically? Treating women as agents of social change risks leaving them out in the cold if they don't effect the change we want.

The reason WuDunn and Kristof structure their argument the way they do isn't because they don't care about women's rights. Their description of their emerging awareness of violence against women and girls — both in the Times Magazine and in a Glamour interview — shows they are passionate about women's equality. However, they write,

Traditionally, the status of women was seen as a "soft" issue - worthy but marginal. We initially reflected that view ourselves in our work as journalists. We preferred to focus instead on the "serious" international issues, like trade disputes or arms proliferation.

This perception still exists, and WuDunn and Kristof's approach seems, in part, like an attempt to turn a "soft" issue into a "serious" one. By linking the persecution of women to global poverty and violence, they may be hoping to reach people who might not otherwise care about women's rights. They may succeed — and again, their practical recommendations sound solid. But there's a problem with treating the empowerment of women as a means rather than an end — what happens if women, once empowered, pursue ends we don't like?

Image via New York Times Magazine.

The Women's Crusade [New York Times Magazine]
Women's Issues: How Helping Women Will Change the World [Glamour]