OXFORD – The top and the bottom of the list of countries in Newsweek’s recent cover story, “The 2011 Global Women’s Progress Report,” evoke images of two different worlds.
At the top of the list – the “Best Places to be a Woman” – we see the usual suspects: Iceland and the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada. On that planet, we see rankings in the upper 90’s for the survey’s five categories: justice, health, education, economics, and politics. Women are out-earning men in college degrees (United States), domestic abusers are being banned from their homes and tracked with electronic monitors (Turkey), and female prime ministers are being elected (Denmark and Australia).
Now look at the other planet, “The Worst Places in the World to be a Woman.” In Chad, the worst of the worst, woman have “almost no legal rights,” and girls as young as ten are legally married off, which is also true in Niger, the seventh worst place for a woman. Most women in Mali – the fifth worst – have been traumatized by female genital mutilation. In Democratic Republic of Congo, 1,100 women are raped every day. In Yemen, you are free to beat your wife whenever you like.
Though it is stunning to see these two worlds in such stark and detailed relief, their existence is not news: development specialists and human rights groups have been calling attention to these inequities for years. But the systemic oppression of women tends to be cast in terms of claims for empathy: we shouldn’t follow these policies because they are not nice, not enlightened. Some development researchers have started to make a compelling case; too, that oppression of women impedes countries’ efforts to escape poverty.
But the data in the Newsweek list show that we need to frame this issue in stronger, more sweeping terms: When poor countries choose to oppress their own women, they are to some extent choosing their own continued poverty. Female oppression is a moral issue; but it also must be seen as a choice that countries make for short-term “cultural” comfort, at the expense of long-term economic and social progress.
It is not politically correct to attribute any share of very poor countries’ suffering to their own decisions. But it is condescending to refuse to hold many of them partly responsible for their own plight. Obviously, the legacy of colonialism – widespread hunger, illiteracy, lack of property or legal recourse, and vulnerability to state violence – is a major factor in their current poverty. But how can we blame that legacy while turning a blind eye to a kind of colonialism against women in these same countries’ private homes and public institutions?
When the poorest countries – most of them in Africa or with Muslim majorities – choose to sustain and even devise new policies that oppress women, we have to be willing to say that, in some measure, they are choosing the economic misfortune that follows. The developed world’s silence suggests that it takes the mistreatment of black and brown women by black and brown men for granted, rather than holding all people to one standard of justice.
The “surprises” on the Newsweek list confirm that educating women boosts economic prosperity. Many countries with histories of colonialism and other forms of tyranny, as well as countries without abundant natural resources, have chosen to educate women and grant them legal rights. Some continue to struggle economically, but none is abjectly poor – and some are booming. Think of China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, and Turkey.
The low status of women on Planet Worst cannot be blamed on cultural stasis: many of the “surprise” countries – Romania, Portugal, the Philippines, and India – treated women far more unequally a mere 50-100 years ago. In Pakistan, marital rape is not illegal today, and there are 800 honor killings a year. What kind of economic boom might stagnating Pakistan enjoy if patriarchy relaxed its grip?
If you are not innumerate, you can start a business. If you are not living in mortal fear of rape and beatings at home, you can organize your community to dig a new well. If you are not subjecting your daughter to traumatic genital injury at three and marrying her off at ten, she can go to school. And, when she does marry and has children of her own, they will benefit from two educated, employed parents, which mean twice as much literate conversation in the home, twice the contacts, and twice the encouragement to succeed. Educated, pushy mothers make all the difference.
As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in the Newsweek issue, “The world needs to think more strategically and creatively about tapping into women’s potential for growth. Studies show that helping women access trade and grow businesses helps create jobs and boost incomes.”
But on Planet Worst, forcing terrified, uneducated women to remain at home is more socially acceptable than facing the fact that this means choosing to drag down incomes for everyone. It is time to stop tiptoeing around the poorest countries’ responsibility to do something essential about their own plight: emancipate their women.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.