Home » Development » Making the World Safe for Women

Making the World Safe for Women

April 8, 2010


One of the oldest objects of worship known to man is small figurine carved out of oolitic limestone that has been labeled the Venus of Willendorf. Displayed at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the Venus of Willendorf was created sometime between 24,000-22,000 BCE. The figurine was probably carved by a man. Although it is not a particularly flattering depiction of a woman, it reminds us that men have always been in awe of the power of creation. Unfortunately, the awe that mankind has demonstrated for the process of procreation has not extended to the women who carry it out. When it comes to history, might makes right and the gentler sex has felt the brunt of that might for far too long.


Facts don’t lie. Only one percent of the landowners around the globe are women. Widespread participation by women in politics is a modern development. Often in the past the only way that women could influence politics was between the sheets. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes knew this and penned his famous play Lysistrata to demonstrate that although they were under-appreciated in the male-dominated Athenian society, women were nonetheless well-informed and capable of pursuing political agendas. The play was performed in classical Athens in 411 BC. The play is a comic tale of Lysistrata’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Her strategy is to convince the women of Greece to withhold sexual favors from their husbands and lovers until they agree to negotiate peace. At the beginning of the play, Lysistrata says to her friend Calonice, “There are a lot of things about us women that sadden me, considering how men see us as rascals.” To which Calonice replies: “As indeed we are!” Even back then, women were more appreciated for their beauty than their brains and more for their sexual prowess than their other life skills. Twenty-five hundred years later the world’s women are still suffering at the hands of men.


The husband and wife team, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, remind us that women continue to be ill-treated in many places around the world [“The Women’s Crusade,” New York Times, 23 August 2009]. They write:

“In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.”

Kristof and WuDunn believe that where there is a challenge to be faced there is also an opportunity to be exploited. I’ll return to that part of their story later. First, I want talk about the attacks on the fairer sex that sometimes begin even before they are born. The Economist believes that “at least 100m girls have disappeared — and the number is rising” [“Gendercide,” 4 March 2010]. The magazine reports:

“Imagine you are one half of a young couple expecting your first child in a fast-growing, poor country. You are part of the new middle class; your income is rising; you want a small family. But traditional mores hold sway around you, most important in the preference for sons over daughters. Perhaps hard physical labor is still needed for the family to make its living. Perhaps only sons may inherit land. Perhaps a daughter is deemed to join another family on marriage and you want someone to care for you when you are old. Perhaps she needs a dowry. Now imagine that you have had an ultrasound scan; it costs $12, but you can afford that. The scan says the unborn child is a girl. You yourself would prefer a boy; the rest of your family clamors for one. You would never dream of killing a baby daughter, as they do out in the villages. But an abortion seems different. What do you do? For millions of couples, the answer is: abort the daughter, try for a son. In China and northern India more than 120 boys are being born for every 100 girls. Nature dictates that slightly more males are born than females to offset boys’ greater susceptibility to infant disease. But nothing on this scale.”

This is not a post about abortion. It’s a post about development and it’s my attempt to give girls and women the respect and admiration that they deserve. The world cannot move forward as quickly as it should if half of its population is underappreciated and women’s skills remain untapped. Almost everyone knows that China is facing a future with too few women for its rising male population — but China does not stand alone. The Economist continues:

“Most people know China and northern India have unnaturally large numbers of boys. But few appreciate how bad the problem is, or that it is rising. In China the imbalance between the sexes was 108 boys to 100 girls for the generation born in the late 1980s; for the generation of the early 2000s, it was 124 to 100. In some Chinese provinces the ratio is an unprecedented 130 to 100. The destruction is worst in China but has spread far beyond. Other East Asian countries, including Taiwan and Singapore, former communist states in the western Balkans and the Caucasus, and even sections of America’s population (Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, for example): all these have distorted sex ratios. Gendercide exists on almost every continent. It affects rich and poor; educated and illiterate; Hindu, Muslim, Confucian and Christian alike. Wealth does not stop it. Taiwan and Singapore have open, rich economies. Within China and India the areas with the worst sex ratios are the richest, best-educated ones. And China’s one-child policy can only be part of the problem, given that so many other countries are affected. In fact the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modern desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus.”

This is not just a moral problem. It is a security and economic problem as well. The article explains the extent of the problem:

“China alone stands to have as many unmarried young men—’bare branches’, as they are known—as the entire population of young men in America. In any country rootless young males spell trouble; in Asian societies, where marriage and children are the recognized routes into society, single men are almost like outlaws. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity. It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide. Women are missing in their millions—aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now.

Although the situation is beyond alarming, it is not beyond hope.

“The crumb of comfort is that countries can mitigate the hurt, and that one, South Korea, has shown the worst can be avoided. Others need to learn from it if they are to stop the carnage. … In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it. But this happened when South Korea was rich. If China or India—with incomes one-quarter and one-tenth Korea’s levels—wait until they are as wealthy, many generations will pass. To speed up change, they need to take actions that are in their own interests anyway. … And all countries need to raise the value of girls. They should encourage female education; abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters inheriting property; make examples of hospitals and clinics with impossible sex ratios; get women engaged in public life—using everything from television newsreaders to women traffic police. Mao Zedong said ‘women hold up half the sky.’ The world needs to do more to prevent a gendercide that will have the sky crashing down.”

Returning to Kristof and WuDunn, their lengthy article goes into great detail about what is being done to save the world’s women. They write:

“If the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. ‘Women hold up half the sky,’ in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos. There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”

One of the ways that women are being helped is providing them access to credit through micro-lending institutions. Microfinance is a topic on which I’ve previously written. To learn more about the benefits and challenges associated with microfinance, read my posts entitled Programs that Fight Poverty, Financing the Poor, and The Ups and Downs of Microfinance. Kristof and WuDunn discuss one such institution in Pakistan.

“Kashf is typical of microfinance institutions, in that it lends almost exclusively to women, in groups of 25. The women guarantee one another’s debts and meet every two weeks to make payments and discuss a social issue, like family planning or schooling for girls. A Pakistani woman is often forbidden to leave the house without her husband’s permission, but husbands tolerate these meetings because the women return with cash and investment ideas.”

They tell the story of Pakistani woman named Saima, who “took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore.” They pick up her story from there.

“She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. … When merchants requested more embroidery than Saima could produce, she paid neighbors to assist her. Eventually 30 families were working for her, and she put her husband to work as well — ‘under my direction,’ she explained with a twinkle in her eye. Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television. … Saima’s new prosperity has transformed the family’s educational prospects. She is planning to send all three of her daughters through high school and maybe to college as well. She brings in tutors to improve their schoolwork, and her oldest child, Javaria, is ranked first in her class. We asked Javaria what she wanted to be when she grew up, thinking she might aspire to be a doctor or lawyer. Javaria cocked her head. ‘I’d like to do embroidery,’ she said.”

The world has for too long overlooked the potential power of female entrepreneurs. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations trying to change that. To learn more, read my post entitled Empowering Female Entrepreneurs in the Developing World. Kristof and WuDunn rhetorically ask, “What do we make of stories like Saima’s?” In answer, 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. Our awakening came in China. … We came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that … found that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because parents didn’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys received — and that was just in the first year of life. … A similar pattern emerged in other countries. In India, a ‘bride burning’ takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry — but these rarely constitute news. When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. … The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine ‘gendercide’ far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

Kristof and WuDunn note that “gender discrimination” goes far beyond western issues of “unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss.” They continue:

“In the developing world, … millions of women and girls are actually enslaved. While a precise number is hard to pin down, the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, estimates that at any one time there are 12.3 million people engaged in forced labor of all kinds, including sexual servitude. In Asia alone about one million children working in the sex trade are held in conditions indistinguishable from slavery, according to a U.N. report. Girls and women are locked in brothels and beaten if they resist, fed just enough to be kept alive and often sedated with drugs — to pacify them and often to cultivate addiction. India probably has more modern slaves than any other country. Another huge burden for women in poor countries is maternal mortality, with one woman dying in childbirth around the world every minute.”

Although the childbirth statistics are tragic, the greater tragedy is that many of the deaths associated with childbirth could be prevented. Kristof and WuDunn explain:

“For all of India’s shiny new high-rises, a woman there still has a 1-in-70 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. In contrast, the lifetime risk in the United States is 1 in 4,800; in Ireland, it is 1 in 47,600. The reason for the gap is not that we don’t know how to save lives of women in poor countries. It’s simply that poor, uneducated women in Africa and Asia have never been a priority either in their own countries or to donor nations.”

They continue their article with the story of a teenage girl named Abbas, who lives in the Indian city of Hyderabad. Abbas was a beautiful young girl of 14 when she first found herself trafficked into the sex business.

“Abbas was never paid for her work. Any sign of dissatisfaction led to a beating or worse; two more times, she watched girls murdered by the brothel managers for resisting. Eventually Abbas was freed by police and taken back to Hyderabad. She found a home in a shelter run by Prajwala, an organization that takes in girls rescued from brothels and teaches them new skills. Abbas is acquiring an education and has learned to be a bookbinder; she also counsels other girls about how to avoid being trafficked. As a skilled bookbinder, Abbas is able to earn a decent living, and she is now helping to put her younger sisters through school as well. With an education, they will be far less vulnerable to being trafficked. Abbas has moved from being a slave to being a producer, contributing to India’s economic development and helping raise her family. Perhaps the lesson presented by both Abbas and Saima is the same: In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy. With education and with help starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty.”

I couldn’t agree more. They point out that that in countries like South Korea, Malaysia, China, and Thailand, there is growing evidence that “rural girls who previously contributed negligibly to the economy have gone to school and received educations, giving them the autonomy to move to the city to hold factory jobs.” Although some factory jobs in developing countries still require hard work in difficult conditions, they are much safer there than in the sex trade. Kristof and WuDunn report that, despite the harsh conditions found in some factory jobs, “peasant women were making money, sending it back home and sometimes becoming the breadwinners in their families. They gained new skills that elevated their status.” Unfortunately, the women who need the most help generally possess few of the tools necessary to help themselves. In some cases, however, Kristof and WuDunn report, the poor have it within their own means to help themselves. They explain:

“Our interviews and perusal of the data available suggest that the poorest families in the world spend approximately 10 times as much (20 percent of their incomes on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children (2 percent). 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. Girls, since they are the ones kept home from school now, would be the biggest beneficiaries. Moreover, one way to reallocate family expenditures in this way is to put more money in the hands of women. A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier. In Ivory Coast, one research project examined the different crops that men and women grow for their private kitties: men grow coffee, cocoa and pineapple, and women grow plantains, bananas, coconuts and vegetables. Some years the ‘men’s crops’ have good harvests and the men are flush with cash, and other years it is the women who prosper. Money is to some extent shared. But even so, the economist Esther Duflo of M.I.T. found that when the men’s crops flourish, the household spends more money on alcohol and tobacco. When the women have a good crop, the households spend more money on food. ‘When women command greater power, child health and nutrition improves,’ Duflo says. Such research has concrete implications: for example, donor countries should nudge poor countries to adjust their laws so that when a man dies, his property is passed on to his widow rather than to his brothers. Governments should make it easy for women to hold property and bank accounts … and they should make it much easier for microfinance institutions to start banks so that women can save money.”

Kristof and WuDunn, who have both traveled the world and encountered poverty firsthand, believe that “shoveling money at poor countries accomplishes little.” That’s probably something that liberals and conservatives alike can agree upon. “Helping people,” they write, “is far harder than it looks.” Does that mean that aid to impoverished countries should be halted? Obviously not. They continue:

“In general, aid appears to work best when it is focused on health, education and microfinance (although microfinance has been somewhat less successful in Africa than in Asia). And in each case, crucially, aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return. Only a small proportion of aid specifically targets women or girls, but increasingly donors are recognizing that that is where they often get the most bang for the buck. … Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. 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. That’s in part why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and international security specialists are puzzling over how to increase girls’ education in countries like Afghanistan — and why generals have gotten briefings from Greg Mortenson, who wrote about building girls’ schools in his best seller, ‘Three Cups of Tea.’ 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.”

Kristof and WuDunn conclude by describing what their “agenda for fighting poverty through helping women [would] look like.” They begin with education.

“You might begin with the education of girls — which doesn’t just mean building schools. There are other innovative means at our disposal. A study in Kenya by Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist, examined six different approaches to improving educational performance, from providing free textbooks to child-sponsorship programs. The approach that raised student test scores the most was to offer girls who had scored in the top 15 percent of their class on sixth-grade tests a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade (and the glory of recognition at an assembly). Boys also performed better, apparently because they were pushed by the girls or didn’t want to endure the embarrassment of being left behind. Another Kenyan study found that giving girls a new $6 school uniform every 18 months significantly reduced dropout rates and pregnancy rates. Likewise, there’s growing evidence that a cheap way to help keep high-school girls in school is to help them manage menstruation. For fear of embarrassing leaks and stains, girls sometimes stay home during their periods, and the absenteeism puts them behind and eventually leads them to drop out. Aid workers are experimenting with giving African teenage girls sanitary pads, along with access to a toilet where they can change them. The Campaign for Female Education, an organization devoted to getting more girls into school in Africa, helps girls with their periods, and a new group, Sustainable Health Enterprises, is trying to do the same.”

Kristof and WuDunn would next tackle health issues.

“We would recommend that the United States sponsor a global drive to eliminate iodine deficiency around the globe, by helping countries iodize salt. About a third of households in the developing world do not get enough iodine, and a result is often an impairment in brain formation in the fetal stages. For reasons that are unclear, this particularly affects female fetuses and typically costs children 10 to 15 I.Q. points. Research by Erica Field of Harvard found that daughters of women given iodine performed markedly better in school. Other research suggests that salt iodization would yield benefits worth nine times the cost. We would also recommend that the United States announce a 12-year, $1.6 billion program to eradicate obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury that is one of the worst scourges of women in the developing world. An obstetric fistula, which is a hole created inside the body by a difficult childbirth, leaves a woman incontinent, smelly, often crippled and shunned by her village — yet it can be repaired for a few hundred dollars.”

To learn more about the iodine issue, read my post entitled Iodine and Intelligence. Kristof and WuDunn insist that the cost of doing what they recommend is modest. “All three components of our plan together amount to about what the U.S. has provided Pakistan since 9/11 — a sum that accomplished virtually nothing worthwhile either for Pakistanis or for Americans.” They conclude:

“There are many metaphors for the role of foreign assistance. For our part, we like to think of aid as a kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own. … A bit of help where and when it counts most, which often means focusing on women … [who are] truly able to hold up half the sky.”

The late Charlotte Whitton, a Canadian feminist and mayor of Ottawa, once remarked, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” All over the globe, when given the opportunity, women are proving that they are not half as good as men but often better. This is especially true when it comes to activities that support home, children, and economic choices. Funny man Dave Barry captured the essence of this decision-making process when he wrote: “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there are men on base.” The first thing we need to do is start saving the girls of the world. Our future depends on it. Unless they are saved as infants, it makes no sense to spend a lot of time talking about glass ceilings. Don’t get me wrong — the glass ceilings need to be broken; but lives must take precedence over livelihoods. Given proper health care, the right education, and a sliver of opportunity, women will rise to the top and assume roles that have too long been denied them.

Related Posts:

Full Logo


One of our team members will reach out shortly and we will help make your business brilliant!