Coming out as a feminist

UPDATE 9 am, Saturday, May 7: Another round with Matt (see comment below), another unnecessary reassurance for Offended White Males: yes I completely agree that nobody is automatically guilty or evil based on their gender and race.

Jessica Mack from the great blog Gender Across Borders, interviewed me on feminism in development yesterday, find it here. I had never voiced before what I said in the interview. Some were pleasantly surprised, a few forgot to include the word "pleasantly."

One commenter on Gender Across Borders kindly offered to play the role of Offended White Male. Matt complained about my references to "our paternalistic fantasies.” Matt said:

That has got to be one of the most offensive things I’ve read in quite a while about my intentions as a white male....It’s not ok to generalize women, but it’s ok to generalize white guys?

Matt, please relax.  Which do you think is closer to the truth: (1) there is way, way, way too much talk about white male paternalism in aid, or (2) it has been a verboten subject and it's time we talked about it? I say (2). In conclusion, thanks for saying you agreed with 95 percent! and out of respect for you and other readers, I hereby agree to retract nothing.

A shortened version of the interview follows here:

You talk about the concept of paternalism in global development. I’m curious what the concept of feminism means to you, and what relevance it has for understanding global development.

Most of the time, I talk about the paternalism of rich people toward poor people. I don’t think there’s much explicit racism in aid and development, but there is still a condescending or superior attitude toward poor people, that we can fix their problems. I think there is a gender dimension as well, though I haven’t really talked about it much in my work. I think I could talk about it a lot more.

It’s not an accident that the word paternalistic is the notion of father taking care of and supporting. A lot of discourse in aid is often about helping women and children. Aid agencies offer this appealing image of innocent women and children that are helpless and need our help. ... If you go through a bunch of aid brochures online, I bet that in the vast majority of them you ....will only see women and children...

It seems to me that some of the most insidious examples of bad aid have to do with women and children.

There’s a very powerful incentive to use that imagery for campaigns. They’re about the victims being women and children, but we’re covering over a lot of stuff. We rich white males – speaking as a rich, white male – are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society. There’s still a lot of sexism and discrimination in our own society. We move the gaze away from that inequality and toward another remote part of the world to indulge our paternalistic fantasies.

Yet in crises like Darfur, women really are exponentially more vulnerable. How do you portray this reality so that women aren’t tokenized?

Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not. But we should not go all the way to the stereotypes ...Women in poor countries – and this is a big generalization – are incredibly resourceful. They’re achieving an awful lot. So, to peddle this stereotype of the helpless , pathetic woman that can’t do anything on her own – that’s really destructive and will definitely result in bad aid. Whereas if we find ways to let women tell aid givers what they need so that they can help themselves, that’s going to be much more successful.

.... What’s really at the heart of development is recognizing that everyone has equal rights.  I think the most fundamental thing that needs to happen in development is the recognition of equality in rights: poor, rich, male, female, every ethnic group and every religion.

What do think of some of the stories that Nicholas Kristof portrays? He’s gotten flack for “exploiting” stories of women and girls in order to evoke responses.

I respect Kristof. ... It’s impossible for anyone, including me, to be pure in this business. It’s just so difficult and complicated.

What do you mean by “pure?”

I mean to get things exactly right in terms of motivating people to get involved, not discourage giving, and yet at the same time respect the dignity of poor people.

Right, I think it has to be an ongoing process, but a self conscious one, a very self aware one.

Self awareness is very important. ...the idea of reciprocity. Any time you’re portraying a victimized woman in the Congo a certain way, turn the tables and try to think how you would feel if you were that woman and someone in a rich country far away was portraying your story. If you don’t pass that test – if you say, ‘no I would hate that,’ then you shouldn’t do it. Reciprocity is really at the heart of equality.

Is there a need for more women in global development, or perhaps more feminists?

What’s really needed is a lot more straight talk in our conversations ... that there’s still is a lot of oppression of women going on in poor and rich countries. We need to acknowledge that fact and not hide it behind buzzwords. Honesty makes it easier to find the things that will change power relationships. We have to also recognize the unintended power of development to strengthen women’s positions. Economists talk about development increasing the demand for brains relative to brawn. As economies get richer, the demand for brains goes up and that strengthens the position of women because they have the brains, and now a lot more bargaining power.

It’s funny to me that honesty turns one into a dissident in global development.

I know, it’s strange.

That’s where I see the role of feminism, and in global development too: continually questioning the institution, an appreciation for the process, and a whole lot of self-awareness. The more dissidents the better.

I agree!

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America's Warrior Women

FIGHT OF THE VALKYRIES: Update Tues Mar 23 3:45pm: Maureen Dowd in NYT also notes (colorfullly) the Lady Hawks vs. Male Doves split in the Administration on Libya

Breaking news 7pm: US starts bombing Libya to knock out anti-aircraft missiles, to begin enforcing no-fly-zone.

The Christian Science Monitor notes one difference between those in the Administration who argued for the war in Libya, and those who argued against it.

FOR: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior aide Samantha Power

AGAINST: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and White House chief of staff William Daley

Let me see, what difference, um, do we notice here, um,  some difference, let's not get too essentialist here...if you figure it out, let me know.

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The Swimsuit Debate continues (sigh)....

...probably exhausting the patience of this blog's readers. Robin Hanson responds to my updated post on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue:

Easterly doesn’t explain how exactly watching swimsuit models induces disrespect and harassment, and I find it hard to see the imagined causal path.

As I made clear to Robin in an email exchange, I don't think this debate hinges on an empirical claim. Nobody decides whether to use the N-word or not based on randomized controlled trials of whether its use quantitatively predicts assaults on African Americans. We have a moral sense of what is respectful, how to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, how to treat them as equals, in short, what respects their individual rights. Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.  I believe the Swimsuit Issue does that; others may disagree.

Now it's really WAY past the time that two middle-aged male economists should get back to their own areas of specialized knowledge...

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Sports Illustrated releases annual Mainstreaming Gender Objectification issue

UPDATE 2/25: Robin Hanson's blog offers a defense of the Swimsuit Issue. (Strangely it fails to mention this post although it uses the same "Top 10"  link as below. Maybe Professor Hanson regularly surfs feminist blogs.) This is a teaching moment for economists -- does the relentless marketing of a "swimsuit" young female body type as sex object create a negative externality for women in general? (only economists use the words "externality," "sex" and "swimsuit" in the same sentence). I would say yes, Robin apparently says no.  I think the explosion of such marketing has been a negative trend since the 1960s, inducing more women to be treated disrespectfully or harassed, partially offsetting other gains in women's rights. If you believe individual rights are a key to development, then I think this is an important development discussion (in case you were very justifiably wondering?!)

Original post is below:

see lucid discussion Top 10 Ways Sports Illustrated Disrespects Women

a bit more jargon here

comments from my own sources:

"nobody really could have bust measurement that large and a waist size that small";

"so the ideal is a half-starved 20-year-old Eastern European with implants?"

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A tragic sexual assault becomes pretext to insult both women and Muslims

Update Sunday 2/20/2010: good stories in NYT today: Reporting While Female and Why We Need Women in War Zones One of my favorite blogs, the awesome Wronging Rights, does the definitive take on the Lara Logan story, a CBS reporter who was sexually assaulted on one of the violent days during the Egypt uprising:

The internet, it appeared, was largely in agreement: what happened to Logan was terrible, but hardly surprising - what else could possibly be the result when a girl with "model good looks" is "sent" to a public place full of unrestrained Muslims? say that Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square largely because of her "model good looks" is pretty much just textbook misogyny. Her looks do not cancel out any, much less all, of the myriad other relevant facts. Such as her four years of reporting from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq; her job title, which, last time I checked, was "Chief Foreign Correspondent for CBS News;" or that she had bravely returned to report on the story despite being arrested earlier in the month, and expelled from the country. To discard all of her hard work, and deny her accomplishments, merely because she is an attractive woman, is damn sexist.

....{If she was less attractive} would she be safe from the mob of 200 people who apparently decided to subject her to a prolonged beating and repeated sexual assaults because her delicate beauty stirred their romantic longings? Give me a break. Rape is about power, not how cute the victim is.

So seriously, internets, pull yourselves together. Lara Logan is a professional who suffered a horrific attack in the course of doing a dangerous job. Women all over the world take similar risks every day. We do so because we don't see "vulnerability to rape" as our most salient characteristic. It's about time everyone else picked up on that too.

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Davos Man meets Girl

UPDATE 12:40 pm: Readers point us to an example of a "girl-focused" campaign gone badly awry. The Girl Store markets school supplies in an extremely creepy and objectifying video that asks you to "Buy a girl before someone else does." Sign a petition against this campaign here. --

In the new issue of the e-journal Contestations, Rosalind Eybens asks, What is Happening to Donor Support for Women’s Rights?:

Recent years have seen a marked shift in official development discourse, with less emphasis on a rights-based approach and more on an efficiency approach to gender equality, a tone set by the World Bank’s 2006 action plan – ‘Gender equality is smart economics’….Other equally disturbing trends are emerging, such as DFID’s adoption of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ theme of ‘stopping poverty before it starts’ by ‘investing in girls’ – an approach that entirely ignores the historically derived structural inequities that are keeping many millions of girls [and boys!] in conditions of poverty.

The yearly gathering of the word’s rich and powerful that took place at Davos last week is an equally good example of this new approach. “Six Global Challenges, One Solution: Women” was the not at all over-promising title of Thursday’s panel on women and society. Recent years’ sessions on women and development have also taken place within the “Girl Effect” rhetorical framework: girls are the “world’s greatest source of untapped potential” and must be seen as “a resource and an asset.” “Investing in adolescent girls” “yields a higher return in improving the local economy than any other type of investment” and is a “cost-effective tool” in “lesser developed countries.”

(Never mind that this year, to compensate for the rich world’s utter failure to achieve gender equality at the highest levels of power, Davos organizers had to make it a requirement that their top 100 corporate members make at least one of their five delegates a women, and 20 of them were unable to do so. They were perhaps outnumbered by “Davos wives” whom, according to one poignant account, the other Davos men snub as non-persons.)

The problem is that the message of the “Girl Effect,” is “profoundly anti-rights,” according to Eyben, in that:

The seeming triumph of the 1990s had been that social justice was seen as a sufficient reason for efforts to be made to secure gender equality. Women’s and girls’ well-being was an end in itself. Today, it is all about calculating the rates of return from investing in a person as if she were a piece of machinery.

Emily Esplen describes the dilemma posed by “the Girl Effect” Effect for women’s rights advocates:

Our cause is being championed but not in the way we intended; it has been sapped of political intent and reduced to a technocratic problem. DFID’s ‘unrelenting focus on results’ … incentivises and intensifies this technocratic, de-political approach to women’s empowerment, and to development more broadly.

Even our own local aspiring feminist weighs in, expanding on a discussion that took place here on the blog a few weeks ago:

The debate over the Nike “Girl Effect” video has unintentionally revealed a deep divide in approaches to development, with the two sides close to mutual incomprehension. The divide is between … the technocratic approach and the rights approach.

…The technocratic approach never really tests the proposition …that technocracy will eventually yield equal rights, despite the technocratic veneration for “evidence.” Nor does the technocratic vision consider how much “we” may violate such rights …of “them” along the way. Even if there were such evidence, it would not address whether the final state of equal rights made it “worth it” to violate rights along the way, and above all - who gets to decide?

Putting rights at the end inevitably enmeshes “us” in a tangle of paradoxes in which it will always be unclear who is benefiting from whom, or who is harming whom. Rights must come first, not last.


Related posts: So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect” It takes more than a cow, but…girls still count

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It takes more than a cow, but…girls still count

By Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Global Development, and Miriam Temin, co-author of Start With A Girl In her blog post on Aid Watch last week, Anna Carella took on the “Girl Effect,” using some faulty logic and evidence oversights. Marketing may have over-simplified the message in the translation of research to advocacy in the campaign, but let’s take the post point-by-point:

[The campaign…] relies…on the view that women are innately more nurturing than men, and that women’s natural strengths lie in the home as the “chore doer” and “caretaker.”

The point is that investment in women directly benefits their children and to a larger extent than if benefits were provided to men. For example, Ben Davis’ paper The Lure of Tequila or Motherly Love: Does It Matter Whether Public Cash Transfers Are Given to Women or Men?.  There is also the huge literature on the positive effects of female education and income on child health and nutrition outcomes (here).

Anna suggests that we instead focus on “structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children.” Good luck with that. In the meantime, we’d like to see aid agencies put more money into proven cost-effective strategies: girls’ education, delaying age at marriage, providing greater access to family planning and supporting cash transfers for poor mothers of young children.

The “Girl Effect” is about the community-wide and intergenerational benefits of investing in girls during their adolescence; based on the premise that there are high costs to the counterfactual. In India, for example, adolescent pregnancy generates $100 billion of lost potential income, equal to almost two decades’ worth of aid (Chaaban et al 2009).

This approach does not preclude work with men and boys. In Brazil, for example, Promundo influenced young men’s gender role attitudes, leading to healthier relationships, fewer sexually transmitted infections, and more condom use.

What poor countries need to stimulate sustainable growth are not women taking out loans to buy cows, but better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.

There is impact evaluation evidence that microfinance –like insurance and cash transfers- increases the accumulation of productive assets and smoothes consumption, both of which are good for helping poor households escape poverty. Better governance and reduction of trade barriers helps with economic growth, which is good for poverty reduction.  But there is no automatic reason why donor policies and activities related to governance and terms of trade would benefit poor adolescent girls in the near-term or be more effective than the better-studied policy options described above.

…women in developing countries already make up a larger proportion of the workforce on average than women in industrialized countries, and yet development is stalled.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining what work and workforce means, according to 2010 UN estimates, women’s labor force participation as a share of total employment remains below 30 percent in Northern Africa and Western Asia; below 40 percent in Southern Asia; and below 50 percent in the Caribbean and Central America. The gap between participation rates of women and men has narrowed slightly worldwide in the last 20 years but remains considerable. In OECD countries, 60-80 percent of women participate in the labor market. If you want to make a link between the share of female labor force participation and economic growth, this would be a better approach. And according to that study, greater female labor market participation is positively associated with growth. Finally, other research shows that greater female labor market participation improves child schooling attainment and health, probably via income effects.

Increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients.

While this may be anecdotally true, there is research demonstrating that microcredit, when combined with training on gender, reproductive health and violence, can reduce domestic violence and other social ills. Examples are the IMAGE project, BRAC, etc.  In the Latin American evaluations of conditional cash transfers to women, there has been no evidence that transfers increased domestic violence. Instead, there is evidence that women enjoy new respect and negotiating power in their domestic relationships.

The girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems underlying and reinforcing gender discrimination in poor countries...

This is inaccurate.  Not in the video, but in the motivating report Start with a Girl.

This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.

I don’t know who the “Westerners” are, but if you are a “Westerner” reading this blog, know that if you give some of your hard-earned money to your government or to NGOs that are investing in adolescent girls in partnership with developing countries, it could be a good thing. Just don’t get all “arrogant white man” about it.

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So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect”

by Anna Carella, PhD student in political science at Vanderbilt University Women have increasingly become the focus of international economic development projects, as exemplified by "the girl effect,” a catchphrase and global phenomenon that suggests that development projects aimed at women will succeed because women are more likely to nurture their families and communities.

The “girl effect” initiative was launched by the Nike Foundation in 2008 and has gained traction in the media (Save a Girl, Save the World,  Saving the World’s Women, and Girl Effect Could Lift the Global Economy) and at the 2009 World Economic Forum, where the girl effect panel ranked as the fourth most popular session. According to President of the Nike Foundation Maria Eitel, the goal is “to eradicate global poverty by investing in girls.”  While this campaign seems like a godsend for those who have been working to improve the lives of women, it may actually be damaging to women. Here’s why:

1) It relies on the essentialist view that women are innately more nurturing than men, and that women’s natural strengths lie in the home as the “chore doer” and “caretaker.” Rather than attempting to increase men’s domestic workload, the girl effect calls on women to carry the dual burden of housework and wealth creation. Why reinforce perceptions about “women’s work” and “men’s work” by claiming that women make better homemakers? Why not instead address the structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children?

2) “She will drive 70% of agricultural production. She is an unrealized economic force, accelerating growth and progress in every sector,” claims the campaign. But women in developing countries already make up a larger proportion of the workforce on average than women in industrialized countries, and yet development is stalled. Industrialized countries relied on technological advancements to fuel growth during industrialization, not women. It’s a myth that women will drive growth enough to pull the poorest countries out of poverty: What poor countries need to stimulate sustainable growth are not women taking out loans to buy cows, but better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.

3) The goal of economic development prioritizes the well-being of the economy over the well-being of women, since gender equality is not pursued for its own good but as a byproduct of development strategies. This may be damaging to women in unanticipated ways—for example, increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients. The campaign assures us that once women start working and contributing to household income, their autonomy will grow. In reality, men may feel threatened by the singular focus on women. The greatest subordination felt by women is within their own home, yet the girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems underlying and reinforcing gender discrimination in poor countries (and rich ones too!).

4) The girl effect reinforces the perception of women and more generally people in developing countries as needing “saving.” In the girl effect video above, the viewer is told to “imagine a girl living in poverty.” Then the word “GIRL” is displayed with flies buzzing around the letters, drawing on a stereotypical image often conjured by Westerners to depict sad, impoverished children in developing countries. Such images perpetuate the dichotomy of modern Western world vs. the backwards, charity-dependent rest of the world. In the slideshow, Westerners are invited to “fix this picture,” and told that if they invest in girls they will change the course of history. This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.

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The plough and the veil

Why do some cultures encourage women to work, while others prefer they stay secluded in the home? Why do women in Africa command a bride price for their hand in marriage, while in northern India it is the bride’s family who must pay a dowry to the groom? Why are women secluded in the home in many Islamic countries, but not in Africa? Why is there the same contrast between female seclusion in northern India and not in southern India? Why are sons so intensely preferred to daughters in China?

It’s all about the plough.

A new paper presented yesterday at NYU by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn:

…[S]ocieties with a tradition of plough agriculture tend to have the belief that the natural place for women is inside the home and the natural place for me is outside the home. Looking across countries, subnational districts, ethnic groups and individuals, we identify a link between historic plough-use and a number of outcomes today, including female labor force participation, female participation in politics, female ownership of firms, the sex ratio and self-expressed attitudes about the role of women in society.

The idea orginates with Ester Boserup (who wrote a book with the same title as this post), who hypothesized that the way people farm influenced gendered division of labor and attitudes about women’s roles that persist to today.

She observed that in societies that didn’t rely on the plough to till the land—the case in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, and southern India—farming was largely done by women. By contrast, in societies that did use the plough—including North Africa, the Middle East, and northern India—men strong enough to do the plowing dominated agriculture, while women, sometimes veiled, were restricted to duties in the home. Their labor valued less, women in plough societies paid dowries rather than receiving a bride price. This distinction persisted in contemporary labor force participation, Boserup thought, for example in southern India where women were more likely to leave the home for jobs in factories than their contemporaries in the north.

Alesina et. al. have now confirmed Boserup’s findings with a variety of cross-country and within-country data. They find these effects even persist among second-generation US immigrant women, who work outside the home more when they are from non-plough cultures compared to plough cultures.

Obviously, cultures do evolve. This 1917 recruitment poster for British women to take up the plow while their menfolk are away at war reminds us how disruptions like war can help to shift gender roles relatively quickly—in the US, too, droves of women entering the workforce during World War II irrevocably altered American attitudes towards women working outside the home.

This paper is part of two separate kinds of studies now enjoying a vogue in economics: (1) ancient history matters, and (2) culture matters. The authors interpret their findings as suggesting “a very long persistence of cultural traits.”

-- Top photocredit: flickr user Bindaas Madhavi

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Why doesn't the other gender care about Gender?

Thirty years on, it is proving harder than many of us had hoped for gender and development policy and practice to move beyond familiar stereotypes – women as abject victims or splendid heroines, men as all-powerful perpetrators. Axioms abound: ‘women are the poorest of the poor’, ‘women give more priority to others – men invest more resources in themselves’, ‘women live in a more sustainable way than men and cause less climate change’, ‘women are the antidote to the financial crisis’.

Representations of men are limited and limiting. The ready association of the words “men” and “masculinity” with brute force, brash competitiveness and brazen prerogative makes those on the receiving end of the exercise of masculine power decisively female.

These complaints about Gender promoting gender stereotypes come from the journal Contestations, in an article by the always thought-provoking Andrea Cornwall and Emily Esplen.  They call for moving beyond stereotypes and actually involving Men in the cause of better lives for Women. They wonder why they have few male takers for their recommended actions:

Why ... do we see so few men actually taking up these actions – even the men around us who declare themselves sympathetic allies?

Along with lots of bad reasons that don't reflect well on men, it could also reflect a few men put off by a cause that, according to the authors, perpetrates the "all men are evil" stereotype.

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Why African women and girls are still manual porters

The Washington Post this morning carries a story on a DC couple who went on safari in Tanzania and then decided to start an NGO to donate bicycles to give relief to the vast number of female manual porters they encountered.  Whether their project fits into the well-populated category of poorly informed good intentions I leave to the readers to judge (although the NGO name is the cringe-inducing Pets Providing Pedals, since one of the couple is a professional dog groomer). Every visitor to Africa is struck by the huge amount of human porterage going on, usually by women and girls. The stereotypical image of an African girl walking long distances with a large load balanced on her head is not just a stereotype.  But the Pets Providing Pedals project raises a different question -- why aren't bicycles already used a lot more already? Or carts drawn by draft animals? Or cars or trucks?

A standard economist's answer could suffice, although it hardly lessons the tragedy of the women condemned for life to porterage. You substitute capital (trucks, bicycles, carts) for labor (head porterage) when labor is scarce. You substitute labor for capital when capital is scarce and unskilled labor is abundant.  Guess which one applies to most African countries.

A sustainable alternative to women being used as draft animals probably requires something that vastly increases the demand for unskilled labor and makes it more expensive ("sweatshops" look positively attractive by comparison). Of course, there are also these little tiny issues about women's rights and gender equality -- but that too could respond to economic forces that gives women many more viable alternatives.

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African men call for UN to protect white women

stephen-lewis.jpg (Mother’s Day Edition)

OK that didn’t really happen, but just think how white men would respond if it did.

What happens of course is the reverse: white men offer themselves as saviors of African women.

One random example: Stephen Lewis the former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa (2001-2006) said that UNAIDS “utterly and tragically failed to protect the women of Africa” and he is calling for a new UN agency for women to supply the missing protection.

And it matters not whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, or female genital mutilation, or child brides, or honour killings, or the absence of property rights, or the absence of inheritance rights, or the absence of laws against rape and sexual violence, or the need to guarantee economic autonomy, or the dismal limits of political representation … in each and every case, and countless more, the world cries out for a women’s agency to intervene.

I of course agree that all of these things are horrific tragedies, and that oppression of women, and violence against women, is one of the most terrifying violations of individual freedom that we see in the world today.

But what would work pragmatically to better the situation? White men who run aid agencies or offer themselves as advocates for African women have to think through some hard questions.

(1) Is a direct outside intervention to save African women likely to be effective?

Doesn’t an effective intervention require the cooperation of African men? How likely is that to be forthcoming if African men are marginalized and ignored as the outsiders intervene in sensitive gender relations? Especially if African men are stigmatized through over-generalization as war criminals and rapists (or the slightly more tame stereotype as wife-beaters who spend all the household money on alcohol?)

(2) How credible are white men calling for gender equality in Africa when we don’t have it at home?

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