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It Takes a Woman

How can the international community expect to overcome its entrenched dysfunction when, in far too many nations, half of its population is essentially enslaved by persistent poverty, violence, illiteracy, and political and economic disenfranchisement? Rutgers has long been a leader in championing the cause of women worldwide, with numerous institutes and centers that engage faculty, students, and alumnae, as well as national and international policymakers, in emboldening women with leadership skills and independence to control their own fate.  By Leslie Garisto Pfaff

Women are the poorest of the poor.

It’s an adage, says Charlotte Bunch, that’s as true today as it ever was. In fact, women—and the children they care for—make up 80 percent of the world’s impoverished. They’re also disproportionately illiterate: of the 800 million or so citizens of the globe who can neither read nor write, roughly two-thirds of them are female. And women are far and away the most numerous victims of the global sex trade, with two million women trafficked annually and two million children, mostly girls, sold, coerced, or kidnapped into sexual slavery. As the founding director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Bunch—Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers–New Brunswick—knows the statistics all too well. She has worked for two decades to convince the world that women’s rights and human rights are, essentially, one and the same. A consultant to many United Nations bodies, she helped make women’s rights a crucial issue at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Beijing and served on the advisory committee for the Secretary General’s 2006 Report to the General Assembly on Violence against Women. “If you want to have a world in which human rights are respected and social development proceeds,” she says, “you can’t have half the population subjugated.”

It’s an argument that feminists have been making for more than a century and, thanks in part to Bunch and her colleagues at Rutgers, it’s gaining greater currency as a way of thinking about—and redressing—some of the world’s most pressing problems, among them poverty, violence, and social inequality. Rutgers is in a unique position to move the argument forward and advance the cause of women around the globe. “We have more centers, bureaus, and institutes investigating aspects of women’s lives than any other place in the nation,”says Mary Hartman, University Professor, director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, and former dean of Douglass College (now Douglass Residential College) in New Brunswick. More members of the National Council for Research on Women, a network of 100-plus organizations researching and advocating for women’s issues across the United States, hail from the Rutgers faculty than from any other organization. Although the main purpose of these centers, bureaus, and institutes is to identify problems and disseminate information to groups and individuals in a position to influence policy, the work they’ve done has had a substantial effect on women’s lives around the globe. Together, they are helping to reinforce the message that women’s rights is the issue of our time—or, as Radhika Balakrishnan GSNB’85, ’90, the newly appointed executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, insists, “the issue of all time.”

Why Women?
Women make up half the world’s population and, though a portion of their work is sometimes dismissed as “domestic,” they represent half the world’s labor force. As a simple matter of math, improving women’s lives would have to translate into improvement on a global scale. For Balakrishnan, it comes down to basic morality: “The cause of women’s rights has been led by the most amazing men and women, not because it’s an instrumentalist cause, but because it’s the right cause.”

Increasingly, the advancement of women, especially in the developing world, is being viewed as an instrument for positive change. “Institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations have documented that if you improve women’s economic situation in the village or the community, the situation for children and everyone else improves,” says Bunch. “That’s sometimes the case with men, but not always.”

Ten years ago, Christine Brenner, associate professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers– Camden, was working in Ghana, a West African nation with an annual per-capita income of $670. During an interview with the head of the nation’s microloan program, charged with lending modest amounts of seed money to help individuals start small and home-based businesses, she was surprised to learn that the program no longer made loans to men. The lender, remembers Brenner, explained that “they used to loan to both men and women. But, typically, the man would buy a goat and sell it, and that was it. The woman, on the other hand, would buy a sewing machine and begin to produce and sell garments.” When it came time to repay the loan, she says, the money from the sale of the goat had already been spent. But the woman with the sewing machine now had an income stream and could afford to make her payments. Or, as the lender explained it, because of their role as nurturers, “women generally care more about their children and their families, and they’re making more strategic investments.”

An Epidemic: Violence against Women
It sounds like a simple equation: save the woman, save the world. But globally, women face a complicated array of challenges, from poverty, to lack of education, to political underrepresentation—many, if not all, of them interconnected. Women living at a subsistence level, for instance, can’t afford to send their children to school, and a nation in which most of the women are uneducated isn’t likely to produce the kind of female leadership that might address issues of gender, like violence against women. Although the world is far from untangling the complex web of problems ensnaring half of its population, the global women’s movement has given women something crucial in the quest for change: a voice. And as women around the world begin to speak—and the world begins to listen—we’re learning exactly where the greatest challenges lie and how we might begin to meet them.

In a 2000 report, the United Nations called violence against women a global epidemic that “continues to cut across cultures, class, education, incomes, ethnicity, and age in every country.” A decade later, that epidemic still claims millions of victims annually. Keely Swan, project coordinator at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, stresses that the phrase violence against women “really covers all kinds of violence,” including domestic violence, rape, and sexual abuse; sex trafficking; and harmful cultural practices like genital mutilation and honor killings. It also encompasses the abortion of female fetuses and the killing of infant girls in favor of male children, one of the trends behind the mysterious absence of 60 million females from the Asian population.

Balakrishnan goes further, adding militarism—the tendency to view war as the best solution to international tensions and other problems—in the category. “What’s happening in the Swat Valley in Pakistan,” she says, referring to a series of brutal attacks on women by the Taliban in the name of its interpretation of Islamic law, “is not an isolated incident of a group of men doing something bad; it’s a consequence of militarism in that region.” Militarism, she says, undermines women’s economic stability and their ability “to have a job, to walk down the street, to function in the world.”

Losing a Generation
There’s another adage often quoted about women: Educate a man, and you educate a family; educate a woman, and you educate a generation. Although it elucidates the potential power of women, it also hints at what’s at stake when we ignore their needs and rights. Of the roughly 300 million children around the globe without access to education, two-thirds are girls. And education, says Fran Mascia-Lees, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the School of Arts and Sciences, “has a very critical relationship to women’s employment opportunities, number of children, reproductive autonomy, and health care.” A lack of education, therefore, can translate into yet another generation of women raised in poverty without social or political power. Mascia-Lees was responsible for the development of “indicators,” like family size and economic opportunity, that have been used to assess women’s status across the globe. The relationship of education to all the other measures of status, she says, is as critical today as it was when she began her work in 1982.

Absent at the Table
Before the 20th century, virtually every woman who wielded national political power was either born into it or married into it. Although that’s clearly no longer the case, women overall remain grossly underrepresented. Out of more than 180 nations, only 11 have elected a woman as head of state, and worldwide, women make up 16 percent of national governing bodies (17 percent in the current U.S. Congress). “There’s a greater participation of women in local politics, and an increasing number of women are being elected at the local level,” says Joanna Regulska, dean of International Programs at the School of Arts and Sciences, “but the big obstacle continues to be participation in the parliaments”—to the detriment of women’s advancement. “If you lack the political representation, you’re not at that table where the decisions are made to address violations of social, economic, and cultural rights.”

The Feminization of Poverty
Over the past 40 years, women in industrialized nations have entered the workforce—and risen to positions of economic power—in unprecedented numbers. Yet, as Western women continue to ascend corporate and professional ladders, there’s been a corresponding economic descent in other parts of the world. “One of the very sad developments over the last 40 years,” says Mary Hawkesworth, chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences, “has been a phenomenon called the ‘feminization of poverty.’” That means that the earnings gap between women and men has continued to widen, further restricting women’s access to things like clean water, decent health care, education, and legal protection. This has been exacerbated by the global increase in female-headed households, which tend to be poorer than two-parent families, as well as what Karima Bennoune, professor at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, calls “the negative effects of globalization,” including cuts in social services resulting from the global economic downturn.

Without addressing poverty, it’s unlikely that the world community can make a significant change in women’s global status. Consider Guatemala, where the government and a variety of nongovernmental organizations have been trying to lower the nation’s high rate of maternal mortality through a program that trains midwives. Sheila Cosminsky, an associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers–Camden who has studied Guatemalan midwives, points out that the goal of much of that training is to have midwives refer an increasing number of cases to hospitals. This approach might yield results in, say, suburban New Jersey. In Guatemala, however, it isn’t working because more than half the population lives in poverty and can’t afford hospital visits, despite the efforts of midwives. Poor women, Cosminsky notes, can’t afford the transportation to get them to the hospitals, which are only capable of handling 20 percent of the nation’s 449,000 annual births. “Without addressing the issues of poverty and control of resources,” she observes, “a lowering of child and maternal mortality is just not going to happen.” Two possible solutions, she says, are education for Guatemala’s women, many of whom are illiterate, and microlending to support individual or group businesses.

Help for the Poorest
Just as the problems facing women are complex and intermeshed, so are the potential solutions. If, for instance, we could reverse the feminization of poverty, we might also alleviate the host of ills that poverty generates. One approach that seems to be doing just that is microlending. “In the developing world,” says Brenner, “a loan of $400 to $500 can start a cottage industry.” Microloans have granted women not only a route out of poverty, but also autonomy and self-respect.

When the economic status of women rises, it lifts families and whole communities with it. Studies have shown, for instance, that men and women in developing nations exhibit markedly different patterns of spending. Among the workers with whom Cosminsky worked in Guatemala’s coffee and sugar plantations, many of the men tended to spend what disposable income they had on “luxury” items like alcohol or radios. Women, on the other hand, put their income toward health care for the family and education for their children. A small woman-owned business, says Cosminsky, “may allow enough money to come into a family so that 12- to 15-year-olds don’t have to work and can stay in school longer.”

For all their promise, though, microloans haven’t proven to be a cure-all. “If you look at the poorest countries, like Uganda, the interest rates on microloans range from 18 to 40 percent, and women have to start paying back that interest in the first week,” says Hawkesworth, who suggests that interest rates need to be affordable or women need help forming credit collectives instead of relying on bank-financed loans.

Balakrishnan and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership are proposing another way to address women’s poverty. As an economist, Balakrishnan is looking at macroeconomic issues like trade policy and government regulation (or the lack thereof) as both a source of poverty and a potential tool for alleviating it. She and her colleagues, with the collaboration of activists in the field, are studying what governments are doing, and should be doing, in the realm of economic policy and trying to determine whether policies now in place are helping to advance specific human rights. “In Mexico,” she says, “we looked at the right to food, and one of the things we found is that, after the opening up of trade, the price of foods that poor Mexicans typically eat, like tortillas, went up, and the price of junk food went down.” Mexico, she points out, has the world’s third-highest obesity rate and yet “no one’s connecting that to trade policy.” The center takes the research they’ve done and provides the hard data and analysis to activists in the United States and Mexico “so that they can hold their governments accountable on economic policy.”

Exposing Gender-Based Violence
Before we can propose global solutions to the problem of gender-based violence, we need to convince the world that women, as well as men, have a fundamental right to protection from violence. That’s precisely the idea that has driven the Center for Women’s Global Leadership for the past 20 years as it has worked, under the leadership of Bunch, “to put a feminist lens on human rights, with a particular focus on violence against women as a human rights issue.” One key to achieving that has been getting women’s rights on the world’s human rights agenda. Over the past two decades, the center has worked closely with the United Nations, which now embraces the concept of violence against women as a human rights abuse, to do just that, securing commitments from member nations on a spectrum of issues, from acceptance of gender-based violence as grounds for political asylum to an understanding of rape in armed conflict as a war crime.

Another major antiviolence effort emerging from the center is “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence,” an annual campaign that allows the Center for Women’s Global Leadership to serve as a sort of conduit between international organizations like the United Nations and grassroots groups working to highlight, and alleviate, gender-based violence. Swan, coordinator of the campaign, says the center’s work has helped to make violence against women “a huge issue at the international level,” citing, among other things, the United Nations secretary general’s multiyear campaign “Unite to End Violence against Women” and the United Nations’ recent Resolution on Women, Peace, and Security that calls for a gender perspective on conflict.

Bennoune, a contributor to a recently released United Nations report on gender and counterterrorism who is working with Senegalese women living under Muslim law, believes that to end violence against women, including violence stemming from religious extremism, the United States needs to “have the political will to do something about these issues, to really invest the resources, and to take women’s human rights seriously.” A step in that direction, she says, would be for the United States to formally ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, an international bill of rights for women adopted by the United Nations in 1979 and since ratified by every other developed nation.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Regulska was instrumental in establishing local democracy in eastern and central Europe, working closely with governments and legislative bodies on decentralization, public administration reform, and women’s rights. The president of Poland awarded her the Knight Cross of the Order of Restitution of the Republic of Poland. She believes that it’s essential that women attain political power locally, nationally, and globally. “Political engagement,” she says, “needs to start as early as possible—at home, in the neighborhood, the community, the school.”

Governments that use feminist scholarship to mold the thinking behind decisions regarding foreign aid and other policies can go a long way toward empowering women politically, says Hawkesworth, who is working in Vietnam to help create policies that promote women’s leadership and economic opportunities. From a practical standpoint, only a few of the world’s governments—those in Scandinavia and postapartheid South Africa, for instance—have made women’s rights a prior­ity. Until many others follow suit and have moved beyond a mere formal recognition of the problem, raising women out of poverty must be a priority in order to produce the next generation of women leaders at the national level.

“Let Them Lead the Way”
Whatever their focus, programs devoted to elevating the status of women need to be informed by the women they’re designed to help. Dorothy Hodgson, professor of anthropology at the School of Arts and Sciences and director of the Institute for Research on Women, is working on a project called “Organizing for Change,” which looks at the activism of African women across the continent to determine their specific concerns and find out from the women themselves which tactics have worked to help advance their aims, and which haven’t. In her work with Masai women, Hodgson has seen how programs sometimes get it wrong.

“Working in groups, the Masai women are trying to advance their economic security and political rights,” she says. “Yet they receive tremendous pressure from international organizations to focus on the issue of female genital cutting.” A chapter she wrote for the forthcoming book Gender at the Limit of Rights took its title from a Masai woman’s response to the pressure: “These Are Not Our Priorities.”

If we’re going to champion the rights of women across the globe, it’s essential that we recognize those women as our most important resource. Hartman emphasizes the need for “partnerships with women who know the issues and know how things happen in their own societies.” She stresses that to bring about effective change for women—to help raise them out of poverty, to get them access to health care and education and a political voice—“we have to let them lead the way.” Looking backward and forward, Hartman notes that the social strictures that have discouraged women’s advancement in the developing world—particularly early marriage, in which young women are married off to older men to guarantee heirs to help work the land—are rooted in agriculture. But, she says, “because ever more people in today’s world are mobile, and able to make their living in ways that no longer root them to fixed, inherited landed properties, patriarchal strictures are now fast disappearing.”

People who think that patriarchy and the subordination of women are with us as a part of human nature need to wake up,” she says. And because we’re increasingly in a position to make conscious decisions about gender roles, “we’re leaving the old world and coming into a pretty exciting place.”