A multilateral approach to womens’ empowerment

Along with first-hand accounts and statistics, husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn offer practical solutions to alleviate the multiple obstacles that women face in their new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. With a multi-pronged approach to enhance the state of women, their proposals draw from various disciplines, including education, health care and law.
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, the paramount moral challenges for mankind were slavery and totalitarianism. Today the largest, most clamorous challenge we face is battling brutality against women. This is the assessment Pulitzer prize-winning journalists and husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn make in an essay adapted from their book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Kristof and WuDunn surveyed the varying plights endured by women across the globe and delineated present, practical solutions. Ironically, the afflictions they highlight – trafficking, violence, maternal mortality and lack of education – predated the advent of slavery and totalitarianism. The moral challenges that beset the world were always exacerbated for women; women suffered through not only slavery, but frequent rape and maternal mortality. Where totalitarianism existed and war and poverty pervaded, it was women who ate last and the least, who carried the burdens of childbirth and child rearing, and who rarely enjoyed the pleasures of leisure and education.

Kristof and WuDunn draw from their years of field work, sprinkling their essay with a mixture of first-hand experiences and statistics. The stories bring home the horror of these centuries of brutality, which, citing Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, has left more than 100 million women missing. From poor healthcare for baby girls and their mothers, to the understated yet overwhelming populations of those victims of trafficking and forced labor – women are disappearing. This disappearance and vulnerability only reinforces this cycle of brutality, stunts the socio-economic growth of developing nations, and enables extremism.

The essay begins in Pakistan where the threads of intricate embroidery shield women from the verbal and physical abuse of their spouses. Samia, who was often abused by her husband and mother-in-law, was granted a $65 dollar loan from the Pakistani microfinance organization, the Kashf Foundation. With beads and cloth she produced embroidery which brought her a steady stream of income. The money boosted her family’s quality of life exponentially, allowing Samia to repay debt, renovate her daughter’s school and channel running water to her home. The beatings abated and were replaced with respect from her husband and her community; Samia now plans to send all three of her daughters through high school.

The success of micro loans to women has proven to empower. Most importantly, as women are empowered, it becomes more difficult to beat or exploit them or their children. The authors point to a study in the Ivory Coast which reveals that while women spend more of their money on food, education and health, men buy alcohol and tobacco when they have purchasing power. Furthermore, an empowered mother may be the most effective weapon to battle violent and militant tendencies in young men.

This concept that once a woman is given the opportunity to work or earn independent of a male, she emerges a more self assured, empowered female, has born fruit in more subtle manners in Western Muslim communities as well. Confidence has surged where traditional housewives have returned to school or taken up paid or volunteer work outside the home. In our local American-Muslim communities, we have seen many examples of such women speaking up at mosques and in homes. Exposure to the marketplace has helped them demand better treatment at home and engage their families and community intellectually about issues that had remained unchallenged for decades. With humble careers, part-time jobs at daycare centers or selling makeup for Mary Kay, women were able to improve their marriages and motivate their children more effectively.

Along with first-hand accounts and statistics, the authors offer practical solutions to alleviate the multiple obstacles that women face. Kristof and WuDunn offer a multi-pronged approach to enhance the state of women. The proposal draws from various disciplines, including education, health care and law, ranging from the distribution of sanitary pads to the amending of inheritance laws.

The authors challenge us to not only focus on female education by building schools, but also supplement these initiatives with solutions that nudge deeper. The authors outline a Kenyan initiative that proved more successful than others in boosting test scores – offering excelling students scholarships and public recognition. Another study found that fresh, new school uniforms in Kenya significantly reduced dropout and pregnancy rates. Uniforms, public recognition and scholarships all serve to create a sense of pride and ownership where perhaps there were none, qualities that enhance all other advancements and efforts.

Kristof and WuDunn’s healthcare solutions return to the concept of nurturing confidence within women. Menstruation and obstetric fissures, and their resulting physical pains, smells and stains, leave many women in the developing world crippled and shunned. Young girls miss school to deal with stains, and villages ostracize women who suffer from obstetric fissures after having delivered their babies. The distribution of sanitary pads could help young girls miss less school days, perform better in their classes, and thereby gain confidence in their academic abilities. On the other hand, new mothers could receive simple corrective surgery for their fissures and reenter society without being demeaned or taunted.

The authors suggest legal solutions to improving the status of women by advocating the amendment of inheritance laws. If women are spending more prudently, the authors suggest government amend property laws so that a husband passes a greater percentage of his land and assets to his wife. Within the guidelines of Islamic Law, men receive a greater proportion of inheritance than women, with the underlying assumption that men will spend on the maintenance and well-being of their families. If studies, like the ones that authors have cited, consistently show that men are not spending for the betterment of their wives and children, debate on inheritance laws may be healthy.

The Women’s Crusade will be fought on many fronts, but will inevitably begin within women themselves. We have long been our best and underutilized allies. In fact, we have often been our worst enemies. Closer to home we have perpetuated gossip about our sisters with marital challenges. We have shunned and neglected independent, professional women who are marrying later – whether by choice or circumstance. As mothers, sisters and friends we have frequently perpetrated insecurity and self-doubt by emboldening damaging perceptions of beauty and gender. The Women’s Crusade will indeed be fought with medical advancements, educational resources and legal advocacy, but it will not be won until women themselves embrace and encourage empowerment.
Nermeen Arastu is an attorney based in New York City

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