Women and Development

Length: 393 words

There’s a tendency to see women’s rights in developing countries as worthy but minor, as secondary in a world facing so many vast challenges of war, terrorism and environmental degradation. My wife and I, in our forthcoming book on this topic, try to argue that in fact you can’t address these larger issues of poverty, environment or security unless you also address the rights and status of women in these countries, and I just finished reading a new book that makes this case particularly eloquently. The book is Michelle Goldberg’s “The means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.

Much of Goldberg’s book is an exploration of population policy and reproductive health, full of wonderful insights and stories (who knew that Singapore, in its effort to raise birth rates, had published tips advising couples how to have sex in the backseat of a car? ). But for me the gem of the book is this argument about the larger significance of women’s rights: There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalism, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics.

All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the

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established order. Yet in one society after another, we can see the absence of women’s rights creating existential dangers. Overpopulation, with all its pernicious consequences for human development and environmental sustainability; underpopulation, and its threat of economic decline and cultural stasis; sex ratio imbalances, which may someday threaten the security of Asia; even the AIDS pandemic tormenting Africa — all are tied up with gender inequality, and none can be addressed successfully without increasing women’s freedoms.

Women’s rights must not be treated as trivial adjuncts to great questions of war and peace, poverty and development. What’s at stake are not lifestyles but lives. Well said. Goldberg is exactly right, and that’s why so many development organizations are now trying to address gender issues, and that’s exactly what drove my wife and me to write our own book on this topic. Indeed, that’s why I didn’t have a column in today’s paper — over the last few days, my wife and I were going over the page proofs of our book, “Half the Sky,” due out in September.

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