As “women’s empowerment” has become a buzz phrase in the last few years, some people are pushing back. They resent this as the latest fad in political correctness, a liberal mission to troll for support from woolly-minded female voters.
Nicholas D. Kristof
But a few recent incidents have underscored why a push on gender equity isn’t just a mindless fad and why it’s not primarily about political correctness.
Consider Marte Dalelv, the 24-year-old Norwegian woman who reported a rape in Dubai — and then was sentenced to 16 months in prison on charges that included extramarital sex. That was, she said, three months longer than the alleged rapist’s prison sentence. After an outcry, the authorities “pardoned” Dalelv (and also, according to news-media reports, her alleged rapist). That’s the first reason “empowerment” isn’t just a feel-good slogan: profound gender injustices persist —not just in Dubai but also, albeit to a lesser extent, in the United States.
The United States military has a deplorable record of sexual violence within its ranks, with an estimated 26,000 service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact annually. Yet President Obama has so far declined to back the sensible, bipartisan and broadly supported proposal of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to improve investigations of rape in the military and reduce conflicts of interest.
Add to the toxic brew of sexual violence the Steubenville rape case, widespread sex trafficking and laws in many states that give rapists custody rights to children they father. Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women in his house for about a decade, has already requested visitation with a child he fathered by rape — although a judge declined the request.
The political backdrop is frustration that women aren’t fully represented in decisions that affect them, and that’s a second reason this issue reverberates. That’s why State Senator Wendy Davis of Texas electrified the social media when she filibustered restrictive abortion legislation. It’s not that men favor tougher abortion laws than women (that’s an issue with a negligible gender gap) but that plenty of women feel bullied by out-of-touch male lawmakers.
Anyone thinking that women’s empowerment is a side issue also wasn’t paying attention when Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating girls’ education, spoke to the United Nations in July on her 16th birthday. Malala highlighted the third reason to focus on empowering women and girls. It’s perhaps the best leverage we have to fight social ills.
As Malala noted, a powerful force for change in the world is education, especially girls’ education. The United States has invested thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11 and accomplished little; maybe we should have invested more in the education toolbox. Drones and military patrols sometimes reinforce extremism, while girls’ education tends to undermine it.
Change can come not only from a bomb but also from a girl with a schoolbook studying under a tree or in a mosque. She will, on average, have fewer children, be more likely to hold a job and exercise more influence; her brothers and her children will be less likely to join the Taliban.
Likewise, women’s health programs aren’t a chivalrous handout but a cost-effective step toward a healthier society. The Guttmacher Institute reported this week that without publicly financed contraception programs in 2010 the unintended pregnancy rate among teenagers would have been 73 percent higher. And lawmakers want to cut such programs?
A final insight into women as leverage for change came during my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a student with me on a reporting trip. The winner, Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin, and I delved into the malnutrition that contributes to 45 percent of all child deaths around the world.
So how do we save those millions of lives? It’s not just about transporting more food to the hungry or about improving agricultural yields in Africa. It’s also about — yes! — empowering women.
In rural Chad, we accompanied World Vision and chatted with local women about why children were malnourished. One factor there, as in much of the world: Men eat first, and women and children take what’s left.
“We know about malnutrition,” one said, but if the meat doesn’t go mostly to the man, she added, “there is trouble in the house.”
Researchers have found that giving women land titles, inheritance rights and bank accounts aren’t just symbolic gestures. Rather, they are strategies to increase women’s influence in household decisions and save children’s lives.
So to those of you who chafe at “women’s rights” as political correctness run amok, think again. This isn’t a women’s issue or a man’s issue, for Malala is exactly right: “We cannot all succeed if half of us are held back.”