Reflections on NYT Magazine Special Issue on Gender: Three Questions to Guide the New Crusade

August 24, 2009
This is a joint post with Molly Kinder. This week The New York Times Magazine is dedicated to a single theme: women. The main attraction of this special issue is a stirring essay by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who write passionately about the great moral, national security and economic development imperatives of investing in the world’s women and girls. The “women’s crusade” they call for seems already to have begun. A few pages beyond, an interview with Secretary Clinton heralds the start of a “new gender agenda” at the highest reaches of the U.S. foreign policy. Also noted is the growing philanthropic attention to the cause of women and girls – a trend that will be further evidenced next month, when the issue headlines at the annual (Bill) Clinton Global Initiative meetings in NYC. The sudden momentum is a welcome change for what has until very recently been a woefully neglected issue. The call for greater attention and investments resonates with our work here at CGD, which similarly has sought to put women and girls at the heart of the development agenda. (We have often worked in collaboration with the International Center for Research on Women and the Kristof/WuDunn essay refers to the Girls Count action agenda, which I co-authored with an ICRW colleague and two other women.) I am confident that investments like the three priority actions that Kristof and WuDunn identify for U.S. action -- educating girls, eliminating iodine deficiency, and improving maternal health –- can not only pave the way for a brighter future for the world’s girls and women, but will also yield important development benefits for entire societies -- including positive spillovers from developing countries to U.S. Along with many other people, I find it easy to “second” these calls for greater action for women and girls. But no one should think this will be enough. In the domain of education, the temptation is to focus on formal schooling, but to reach those who have already missed out on primary school, particularly girls from marginalized minority groups, informal education and creative ways to foster literacy and numeracy are needed. In health, “yes” to important micronutrient programs and better maternal health -- but remember the broader agenda to address sexual and reproductive health, prevention of violence of all kinds, and prevention and management of chronic diseases. That broader health agenda is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. My colleague Miriam Temin and I are just completing a report on the global health agenda for adolescent girls, to be launched on September 16. The recommendations will span both what can be achieved within the health sector and what can be done to change the social forces that shape girls choices, beyond the delivery of health services. Nowhere is the need to look both inside and outside the health sector more important than in the area of HIV/AIDS; that battle will be lost without squarely addressing all facets of gender inequality. (A new report co-authored by CGD’s Nandini Oomman provides specific recommendations for a systematic response to addressing the risks, vulnerabilities and consequences of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on girls and women.) Using international development policies to improve the lot of women and girls in poor countries involves tricky terrain. Thinking through three underlying questions can help stay on track. First, are we interested in the wellbeing of women and girls as a means to an end or an end in itself? Many who advocate that women and girls merit attention and protection focus on their human rights. Arguments for greater investment in girls and women are also often justified on the grounds that healthier, better educated women contribute more to society, and have fewer children, who are healthier and better educated. (I’ve used these arguments myself more than once.) Practically speaking, there is usually alignment between respecting human rights and the broader, multigenerational benefits. But we need to consider this carefully to be sure that it is true specific cases; when it’s not, the human rights imperative must dominate. Second, what is the line between legitimate intervention and cultural imperialism? While many investments such as schooling and improved access to health services are relatively uncontroversial, truly changing the opportunities facing girls and women requires a fundamental change in societal norms, attitudes, and power. In cases of extreme violations of human rights -- such as rape, bride burnings, sexual exploitation, child marriage, and slavery -- the international community arguably has legitimacy to intervene. Beyond these absolutes, however, are there differences in gender relations and social patterns -- such as the control of household resources, marriage arrangements, property and land ownership rights, or political representation -- that are better left to individual cultures to work out? Deciding where the line is requires intensive involvement of those who are as close to genuine representatives of the women involved as possible. Donors and others who are particularly interested in tackling the deep social forces related to gender relations would be well advised to devote considerable effort to understanding who, in particular societies, genuinely speaks for women. Third, what about the men and boys? Serious attention to and investment in girls and women is long overdue, but making girls “winners” shouldn’t make “losers” out of boys. The values and gender norms boys learn -- whether about what it means to be in a sexual relationship or what their value is in raising children -- have profound impacts on them as they grow into men, as well as on their future partners and families. Although many health problems of women have not been adequately addressed, the prevention of those that disproportionately affect boys and men, such as accidents and violence (including suicide), is not even considered within the purview of government officials or donors who focus on health issues. In schooling, boys face many of the same problems girls do in getting a quality education, and in some countries boys are more likely than girls to drop out early for work. A gender agenda that leaves boys behind will undermine its goals and risk compromising its emphasis on fairness and equity. None of this adds up to diminished enthusiasm for the messages of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. Just a healthy recognition that implementing the very welcome “new gender agenda” will require the best of us all.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.