I’ve written a fair amount in my life on the subjects of female empowerment. And I’m not about to stop, because these issues are very close to my heart. However, I have rarely felt as fired up, motivated and inspired as I did yesterday afternoon after dipping into Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This groundbreaking work explores the far-reaching benefits of empowering and educating women across the globe.
Empowering women is not just the right thing to do. It is also the economically smart thing to do. “Evidence is mounting that helping women can be a successful poverty-fighting strategy anywhere in the world,” the authors write in the introduction to Half the Sky. It turns out that when women are given the chance to play a larger role in the economy, they make smart investment and savings decisions and are able to take better care of their families, which means a reduced infant mortality rate and improved health and nutrition for all family members. This phenomenon, dubbed “the girl effect” or else “the double x solution,” has been observed many times and in numerous different settings all over the world. Of course, the opposite is also true: when women are oppressed and excluded from the economy, the economic health of the nation suffers. “Gender inequality hurts economic growth,” stated a 2008 research report prepared by Goldman Sachs. (And if Goldman Sachs is advocating for female empowerment…well. That says a lot. Am I right?)
So why bring this up? Do I, as a white, Western feminist have any right to advocate for sweeping changes around the world as I sit comfortably and safely in my little apartment here in San Francisco? It is, I believe, a fair critique of my stance. I know that some may feel that I am preaching, and that I know little of the social and economic complexities that have led to the current reality experienced by so many women today. Still, I can voice my concerns about the continued oppression and enslavement of women, and advocate for the emancipation, education, and empowerment of women and girls. (Yes, I did say “enslavement”; Kristof and WuDunn estimate that there are at least three million women and girls worldwide that can be legitimately termed enslaved in the sex trade. Obviously, there are other women who have chosen sex work of their own volition. That is a separate issue.)
The world we live in is not always a fair one. However, though it is not fair that I have lived a free and active life, and have had access to educational and other opportunities,I believe it is right that I should advocate for other women and girls to be able – should they choose – to access the same opportunities and resources. Again, this is not a normative statement. I’m not saying that other women should live like me. I’m saying that they should be empowered with the ability to choose what sort of life they want to live.
So read Half the Sky. And then take the message of this book into your heart, and let it kindle a fire there. What we need is a worldwide movement made up of both women and men who care about every woman’s right educational opportunities and economic empowerment. And again, when a nation empowers its women, a transformation occurs. In the words of French politician and Doctors without Borders founder Bernard Kouchner, “progress is achieved through women.”