Women Need Rights, Not Rescue
Posted on: Thursday, September 3, 2009
This article was co-authored by MADRE's Yifat Susskind and Diana Duarte in response to a series of articles published in the New York Times Magazine entitled Saving the World's Women and published on RH Reality Check.
With a tagline like “Saving the World’s Women,” we knew to be suspicious of the recent New York Times Magazine cover story on global women’s rights. Reading on, our suspicions were confirmed.
Women’s rights here are portrayed as a “cause” that seemingly came into vogue only in the 21st century and only once its turn came up after slavery and totalitarianism.
In the introduction to their article, Kristof and WuDunn write:
In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.As if the conditions women face worldwide – such as unequal access to education, denial of health care, violence and discrimination – have been immaterial or at least secondary concerns up until this point. As if the lives of women, or roughly half of humanity, are simply the latest cause célèbre.
When we lose sight of history, we erase the existences of women who fought for their rights over generations, and we forget to seek out the root causes of our current reality. Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of women facing catastrophic circumstances, but with little thought to the forces that created such circumstances. Why do women suffer abuse, poverty and discrimination? Because, we are meant to understand, the culture “over there” has always thus sentenced them.
The solution, according to Kristof and WuDunn? A new aid agenda that targets women and girls. Surely, more resources in the hands of women who have been historically underserved would be a welcome change. But an agenda truly in support of women’s rights would cut across all US policies.
In Afghanistan, it would mitigate against troop surges that risk women’s lives by bombing homes and neighborhoods and strengthening the hand of anti-occupation fundamentalist groups. It would put an end to the common practice of propping up warlords whose miserable record on women’s rights is conveniently disregarded, so long as they serve as useful political allies.
A women’s rights agenda in US policy would eliminate regulations in US aid, like the Helms Amendment, that limit women’s access to abortion and other basic reproductive rights. It would ensure that women farmers responsible for the vast majority of small-scale agriculture around the world are supported and not sold-out to corporate agribusiness. It would pave the way for the US to ratify the international women’s human rights treaty CEDAW, without harmful reservations.
The reality is that US policy has often stood in the way of women’s rights worldwide, throwing up obstacles to women organizing to protect their communities and lives. Yet, Kristof and WuDunn cautiously avoid any critique of US foreign policy in discussing the atrocious conditions of life that so many women face.
They also lavish so much attention on international organizations that are out there “saving women,” that Kristof and WuDunn wind up reproducing the invisibility of the millions of courageous, creative, and undefeated women who are out there helping themselves.
Those are the women MADRE works with all the time. Like the women of Umoja, Kenya, who founded a women-led village and declared it a violence-against-women-free-zone. Or our sisters at the Barcenas Maquila Workers' Committee in Guatemala, who are fighting for their rights as sweatshop workers and as women. Think about the unbelievable bravery of our partners in Afghanistan, who are facing down US air strikes and Taliban death threats to demand peace and basic rights for themselves as women.
MADRE partners with women who are organizing in their communities precisely because they are already hard at work doing what needs to be done. Why replicate their efforts when these women have a firsthand, lifelong understanding of the needs of their communities?
We've seen how international NGOs often wind up undermining local women's organizations. It's not their intent, but they fly in to someplace, open up an office for a year or two, suck out the best staff people from local organizations, and distort the local economy with their fistfuls of dollars. We've even seen local organizations collapse after international NGO's closed up shop once news headlines and foundation dollars drifted elsewhere.
The women we work with may not be "experts" on gender oppression like Nicholas Kristof, but they are experts on the conditions of their own lives. They know what they need to guarantee survival for themselves and their families and what they need to do to improve things for the long-term. So there's no need to airdrop women's rights programs into poor and embattled communities. It makes a lot more sense to team up with the women who are already doing that work and provide the resources and training that they say is useful to effect the change they need.
Archives"Press Room" Home May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008 November 2008 October 2008 September 2008 August 2008 July 2008 June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 July 2006 June 2006 April 2006 March 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 April 2005 March 2005 November 2004 October 2004 April 2004 March 2004 January 2004 December 2003 October 2003 September 2003 June 2003 April 2003 January 2003 September 2002 June 2002 January 2002 November 2001 October 2001 September 2001 August 2001 January 2001
Kaitlyn Soligan, Media Coordinator
PHONE: +1 212 627 0444
MADRE Makes News
Stoking Fire: Addressing the Specific Needs of Female Syrian Refugees (RH Reality Check, May 17, 2013)
An Open Letter to the Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala (Common Dreams, May 15, 2013)
Mothers Fight Back (RH Reality Check, May 9, 2013)
How Not to End the War in Syria (Common Dreams, May 9, 2013)
Conditions in Jordan Syrian refugee camp are worse for women (Women's News Network, April 19, 2013)