Women Need Rights, Not Rescue

With a tagline like “Saving the World’s Women,” we knew to be suspicious of the recent New York Times Magazine cover story on global women’s rights. Reading on, our suspicions were confirmed.

The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development.  In the coming weeks, Rewire will feature commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad.

This article was co-authored by Yifat Susskind and Diana Duarte of Madre.

With a tagline like “Saving the World’s Women,” we knew to be suspicious of the recent New York Times Magazine cover story on global women’s rights.  Reading on, our suspicions were confirmed.

Women’s rights here are portrayed as a “cause” that seemingly came into vogue only in the 21st century and only once its turn came up after slavery and totalitarianism. 

In the introduction to their article, Kristof and WuDunn 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.

As if the conditions women face worldwide – such as unequal access to education, denial of health care, violence and discrimination – have been immaterial or at least secondary concerns up until this point.  As if the lives of women, or roughly half of humanity, are simply the latest cause célèbre.

When we lose sight of history, we erase the existences of women who fought for their rights over generations, and we forget to seek out the root causes of our current reality.  Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of women facing catastrophic circumstances, but with little thought to the forces that created such circumstances.  Why do women suffer abuse, poverty and discrimination?  Because, we are meant to understand, the culture “over there” has always thus sentenced them.

The solution, according to Kristof and WuDunn?  A new aid agenda that targets women and girls.  Surely, more resources in the hands of women who have been historically underserved would be a welcome change.  But an agenda truly in support of women’s rights would cut across all US policies.

In Afghanistan, it would mitigate against troop surges that risk women’s lives by bombing homes and neighborhoods and strengthening the hand of anti-occupation fundamentalist groups.  It would put an end to the common practice of propping up warlords whose miserable record on women’s rights is conveniently disregarded, so long as they serve as useful political allies.

A women’s rights agenda in US policy would eliminate regulations in US aid, like the Helms Amendment, that limit women’s access to abortion and other basic reproductive rights.  It would ensure that women farmers responsible for the vast majority of small-scale agriculture around the world are supported and not sold-out to corporate agribusiness.  It would pave the way for the US to ratify the international women’s human rights treaty CEDAW, without harmful reservations.

The reality is that US policy has often stood in the way of women’s rights worldwide, throwing up obstacles to women organizing to protect their communities and lives. Yet, Kristof and WuDunn cautiously avoid any critique of US foreign policy in discussing the atrocious conditions of life that so many women face. 

They also lavish so much attention on international organizations that are out there “saving women,” that Kristof and WuDunn wind up reproducing the invisibility of the millions of courageous, creative, and undefeated women who are out there helping themselves.

Those are the women MADRE works with all the time. Like the women of Umoja, Kenya, who founded a women-led village and declared it a violence-against-women-free-zone. Or our sisters at the Barcenas Maquila Workers’ Committee in Guatemala, who are fighting for their rights as sweatshop workers and as women. Think about the unbelievable bravery of our partners in Afghanistan, who are facing down US air strikes and Taliban death threats to demand peace and basic rights for themselves as women.

MADRE partners with women who are organizing in their communities precisely because they are already hard at work doing what needs to be done. Why replicate their efforts when these women have a firsthand, lifelong understanding of the needs of their communities?

We’ve seen how international NGOs often wind up undermining local women’s organizations. It’s not their intent, but they fly in to someplace, open up an office for a year or two, suck out the best staff people from local organizations, and distort the local economy with their fistfuls of dollars. We’ve even seen local organizations collapse after international NGO’s closed up shop once news headlines and foundation dollars drifted elsewhere.

The women we work with may not be "experts" on gender oppression like Nicholas Kristof, but they are experts on the conditions of their own lives. They know what they need to guarantee survival for themselves and their families and what they need to do to improve things for the long-term. So there’s no need to airdrop women’s rights programs into poor and embattled communities. It makes a lot more sense to team up with the women who are already doing that work and provide the resources and training that they say is useful to effect the change they need.