Nicholas D. Kristof: A force for change

08/11/2013 12:00 AM

08/09/2013 5:56 PM

As “women’s empowerment” has become a buzz phrase in the past few years, some people are pushing back. They resent this as the latest fad in political correctness.

But a few recent incidents have underscored why a push on gender equity isn’t just a mindless fad and why it’s not primarily about political correctness.

Consider Marte Dalelv, the 24-year-old Norwegian woman who reported a rape in Dubai – and then was sentenced to 16 months in prison on charges that included extramarital sex. That was, she said, three months longer than the alleged rapist’s prison sentence. After an outcry, the authorities “pardoned” Dalelv (and also, according to media reports, her alleged rapist). That’s the first reason that “empowerment” isn’t just a feel-good slogan: Profound gender injustices persist – not just in Dubai but also, albeit to a much lesser extent, in the United States.

The U.S. military has a deplorable record of sexual violence within its ranks, with an estimated 26,000 service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact annually. Yet President Obama has so far declined to back the sensible, bipartisan and broadly supported proposal of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to improve investigations of rape in the military and reduce conflicts of interest.

The political backdrop is frustration that women aren’t fully represented in decisions that affect them, and that’s a second reason this issue reverberates. That’s why state Sen. Wendy Davis of Texas electrified the social media when she filibustered restrictive abortion legislation. It’s not that men favor tougher abortion laws than women (that’s an issue with a negligible gender gap) but that plenty of women feel bullied by out-of-touch male lawmakers.

Anyone thinking that women’s empowerment is a side issue also wasn’t paying attention when Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating girls’ education, spoke to the United Nations in July on her 16th birthday. Malala highlighted the third reason to focus on empowering women and girls. It’s perhaps the best leverage we have to fight social ills.

As Malala noted, a powerful force for change in the world is education, especially girls’ education. The United States has invested thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Sept. 11 and accomplished little; maybe we should have invested more in the education toolbox. Drones and military patrols sometimes reinforce extremism, while girls’ education tends to undermine it.

A final insight into women as leverage for change came during my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a student with me on a reporting trip. The winner, Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin, and I delved into the malnutrition that contributes to 45 percent of all child deaths around the world.

So how do we save those millions of lives? It’s not just about transporting more food to the hungry or about improving agricultural yields in Africa. It’s also about – yes – empowering women.

In rural Chad, we accompanied World Vision and chatted with local women about why children were malnourished. One factor there, as in much of the world: Men eat first, and women and children take what’s left.

“We know about malnutrition,” one said, but if the meat doesn’t go mostly to the man, she added, “there is trouble in the house.”

Researchers have found that giving women land titles, inheritance rights and bank accounts aren’t just symbolic gestures. Rather, they are strategies to increase women’s influence in household decisions and save children’s lives.

So to those of you who chafe at “women’s rights” as political correctness run amok, think again. This isn’t a women’s issue or a men’s issue, for Malala is exactly right: “We cannot all succeed if half of us are held back.”

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