Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kristof and WuDunn: The Axis of Equality: China—Rwanda

Kristof and WuDunn have a consistent message throughout their book, Half the Sky. They strain to point out that no matter how horrible are the horrors, no matter how terrible the terrors, something can always be done. They present numerous stories to illustrate how individual women have managed, after incredibly difficult and apparently hopeless situations, to not only survive, but to thrive. One purpose of this chapter of the book, The Axis of Equality, is to demonstrate that even countries, no matter how disgraceful their history, can change and acquire more enlightened ideas with respect to the treatment of women; the second is to point out the benefits of this enlightenment.
"We sometimes hear people voice doubts about opposition to sex trafficking, genital cutting, or honor killings because of their supposed inevitability. What can our good intentions achieve against thousands of years of tradition?"

"One response is China. A century ago, China was arguably the worst place in the world to be born female. Foot binding, child marriage, concubinage, and female infanticide were imbedded in traditional Chinese culture. Rural Chinese girls in the early twentieth century sometimes didn’t even get real names, just the equivalent of ‘No. 2 sister’ or ‘No. 4 sister’.....Girls were rarely educated, often sold, and vast numbers ended up in the brothels of Shanghai."
And who was the leader who ushered in the revolution that brought these practices to an end? It was none other than the "benevolent" Chairman Mao.
"Communism after the 1949 revolution was brutal in China, leading to tens of millions of deaths by famine or repression, but its single most positive legacy was the emancipation of women. After taking power, Mao brought women into the workforce and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and he used his political capital to abolish child marriage, prostitution, and concubinage. It was Mao who proclaimed: ‘Women hold up half the sky’."This is not to say that Chinese men have completely shed their chauvinist heritage, but Mao did provide women with an opportunity to have political influence, and, perhaps most importantly, economic influence.

The authors provide an anecdote that is worth our while to remember concerning our own country and the importance of political influence.
"As late as 1920, America had a maternal mortality rate equivalent to poor parts of Africa today. But then deaths from pregnancy began to plunge. One reason was antibiotics and blood transfusions, but another was women’s suffrage. A society that gave women the right to vote also gave their lives more weight and directed more resources to women’s health. When women could vote, suddenly their lives became more important, and enfranchising women ended up providing a huge and unanticipated boost to women’s health."Having a say in the world of politics is important, but it is more important to be able to participate in the economy. Allow a woman to leave the house and earn money and old attitudes are quickly brought up to date. This works on a national level as well as on an individual level. In fact, it is not clear that a nation that subjugates its women can ever lift itself from poverty.
"China is an important model because it was precisely its emancipation of girls that preceded and enabled its economic takeoff. The same is true of other rapidly growing Asian economies. As Homi Kharas, an economist who has worked on these issues for the World Bank and the Brookings Institution, advised us:

‘Engineering an economic takeoff is really about using a nation’s resources most efficiently. Many East Asian economies enjoyed a sustained boom by moving young peasant women from farms to factories, after giving them a basic education for free. In Malaysia, Thailand, and China, export-oriented industries like garments and semi-conductors predominately employed young women who had previously been working in less productive family farms or doing household work. The economies got multiple benefits from this transition. By improving the labor productivity of the young women, growth was raised. By employing them in export industries, the countries got foreign exchange which could be used to buy needed capital equipment. The young women saved much of their money or sent it back to relatives in the village, raising national savings rates. Because they had good jobs and income earning opportunities, they also delayed marriage and childbearing, lowering fertility and population growth rates’."
The authors then present us with another example, far away from China, where a necessary move towards gender equality has proven beneficial. Rwanda was a typical poor African nation with a patriarchal society. Its "revolution" arose from the genocide of 1994. So many men were killed that in the aftermath it possessed a population that was 70% female. If the country was going to get back on its feet it would have to make use of its women. Assistance from western nations would be needed and Paul Kagame, the president, probably figured it would not hurt to be viewed as a country with an equal opportunity policy. The constitution ended up with a requirement that women make up 30% of the parliament.
"Rwanda is consciously implementing policies that empower and promote women....Kagame has regularly appointed strong women to cabinet posts and other top positions. Women now hold the positions of president of the supreme court, minister of education, mayor of Kigali and director of Rwanda September 2008, a new election left Rwanda the first country with a majority of female legislators—55 percent in the lower house...Rwanda is also one of the least corrupt, fastest-growing, and best governed countries in Africa."Good things happen when countries empower their women. That issue was discussed at length in a broader context here. The question that arises is: "Could you ever foresee Pakistan and Afghanistan turning their women loose in their economies?" Not tomorrow, but in a few years, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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