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The Women and Economic Power
Rural Women in Nepalese market


Economic Empowerment

“...the ability to live the life of one’s own choosing and be spared from absolute deprivation is a basic human right” (The World Bank)


The World Bank has said that gender equality is good economics. Although that may be a compelling argument for a minister of finance, it implies that gender equality is important as an economic instrument. Somehow that argument does not sit well with my feminist priorities to put women’s welfare first.

The economic-utility argument is not complete wrong; it is misleading. My feminist argument would rather say that gender equality is good governance, because it assures equality in economic decision-making. When viewed through a human rights lens, good economic policies uphold the principles of shared benefit, inclusiveness, and sustainability — all very much a part of a gender equality approach.

The biggest challenge for many of us is to argue for a feminist perspective on macroeconomic policies. However, let’s start with issues that lie close to home, like gender-based violence. Violence against women and girls is an extreme form of coercion, a barrier to full economic decision-making. If the goal of development is to broaden and enhance personal freedoms, ending violence against women and girls is clearly a prerequisite for economic empowerment, rather than just achieving economic growth.

We also need to look with skepticism at fiscal consolidation and reducing government debt, which often results in cuts in social services, such as health care, daycare centers, and social protection measures. These cuts affect women the most, because women are the ones most negatively affected by disasters, financial crises, and health crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of affordable child care forced many women to withdraw from the work force.

Finally, macroeconomic policies related to infrastructure and trade must be planned using a gender lens. For example, improved infrastructure plans, road construction, and public transportation improvements can improve women’s efficiencies, particularly in developing country where they depend on animals for firewood. Women must jump into mainstream economic discussions and demand a say in financing for development.

The Women and Economic Power Quiz

How much do you know about empowering women to make important economic decisions? Try these facts for starters:

1. If men and women farmers had equal access to productive resources, what would be the impact on agriculture?

a) Food production would decrease by nearly four percent.

b) Animal husbandry would decline as women became growers.

c) There would be a two and a half to percent increase in agricultural output.

d) There would be no substantial change.

Answer: Gender equality is good governance and good for the economy. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that there would be a two and a half to four percent increase in agricultural output. If women had the same access as men to fertilizers, maize yields would increase in Malawi and Ghana. In some countries, eliminating discrimination in the workplace could increase labor productivity by as much as 25 percent.

2. Which three countries that have made paid paternity leave mandatory?

a) Sweden

b) Norway

c) Iceland

d) All the above

Answer: Iceland, Norway and Sweden have all required paid paternity leaves. This policy has helped shift the social attitudes in favor of equal division of care responsibilities between men and women. These same countries have also made gender equality central to their foreign policy. What works at home can also help abroad.

3. How many times did James D. Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, mention structural adjustment in his address to the delegates at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women?

a) Zero

b) Once

c) Twice

d) Too many times to count

Answer: While addressing an angry crowd of women at the conference, the former head of the World Bank brought up the topic only once. He said, “A priority concern must be to ensure that women are not hurt by structural adjustment programs. I am well aware of the wide criticism of the Bank on this subject.” Delegates agreed in the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA)to put an end to the negative impact of privatizing social services and provide more social protection for poor women. The BPfA was adopted by 191 countries in 1995.

4. What best practice(s) have companies used to increase gender diversity?

a) Use gender indicators

b) Ensure flexible hours

c) Change human resource management

d) Mentor leadership e) All of the above

Answer: According to McKinsey and Company, all of these are best practices.

Great! Now that you know all of these facts, treat yourself to reading the Beijing Platform for Action on women in the economy. That is likely to open your eyes to some more interesting economic empowerment ideas.

This is the Hand That Built

This is the hand that raised the kids that played in the kitchen that had the pot that cooked the corn that sold in the market that fed the family that lived in the house that Maria built.
Rural Women make pots

Look at a house from a poor woman’s point of view. It is more than a shelter for sleeping and eating; it is also a woman’s primary workspace. Whether this work is paid or not may change over a lifetime. When children are young, a woman may work mainly as an unpaid housekeeper. However, a shelter can also be a place where she earns her living. If she is disabled, she can do home-based jobs, such as sewing. If she is a peddler traveling around the city, she must prepare her goods at home. An older woman can set up a small store right at the front door. She can cure the sick and care for children at home. The list of activities seems endless. There is one thing she is not likely to do at home: retire.

One error of many governments’ discussions about the home is assuming that men and women use it in the same way. Participants at UN meetings about economic development, including urban planners, academics, and scientists, often talk about a home from a male perspective: a place that you leave when you go to work. Home is considered a private space without connections to the public arena of commerce and politics. From a working woman’s point of view, this private space cannot be separated from their public life.  

Reproduction, production, and consumption are the three pillars of a household economy. A woman is the fourth pillar, and she must keep the others balanced to take care of the whole family. If her job requires long-distance travel, and there is no daycare facility at work, she must find alternative care for the children. In many families, daughters drop out of school to help the family survive. Women must also consider their responsibilities as consumers of goods and services. A home’s location near a good school, water pumps, quality public services, and stores is as important for a family’s welfare as low-cost housing.

These are some critical gender and housing issues that need to be remembered in the sustainable development goals. These issues cover living conditions that many of us know exist, but are not always reflected in the outcome of a UN consultation. Policy-makers are prone to apply a double standard to women and shelter issues. They do not mind bringing women into the picture when referring to personal security or family life. However, they are less inclined to listen when women declare that housing is a political matter. Women want and should have more decision-making power about housing rights, including issues related to land and other assets.

Women’s rights are at stake when speaking about socioeconomic policies that create conflicts between women’s multiple roles. For example, to increase women’s economic participation, policies may favor foreign investments in export-oriented trade zones that attract a female work force. However, these jobs are often incompatible with women’s duties at home. There are few support services for childcare in these industrial parks even if management openly approves of working mothers.

Another example of this conflict between socioeconomic policies and women’s many roles is how poverty affects family planning. Poor women may have access to family planning services, but quality services do not guarantee that women have the choice to make decisions about reproduction. Women and health activists point out that in some Latin American countries, women appear to have access to a variety of family planning methods, but still undergo mass sterilization due to of poverty. They simply cannot afford to give up work days or extra money for visits to health clinics. True family planning is only possible when there are economic opportunities as well. These economic opportunities have declined for women due to the global economic crisis and higher fees for public services.

As we look to the future, I think of one important message from the International Labor Organization and the Beijing Platform for Action. To create compatibility between work and family, it is crucial to attain sustainable development. Let the women who speak from real-life situations have an equal say in how family and work fits into the bigger pictures.  

Four Wishes for Economists

NGO Scoreboard of commitments in Beijing 1995

There was once a little girl who was supposed to write a class assignment called “My Hopes and Dreams.” The problem was that she was unsure about grammar, so she carefully chose her words and wrote down each thought. Then, at the top of the first page, she wrote a note to the teacher: “I have written this essay with everything except the punctuation and capital letters. Since you are the expert, could you please fill these in? Thank you.”

Only a fanciful child would suggest such a collaborative approach to writing about her own hopes and dreams. It would be hard to imagine why a smart-thinking adult would surrender control over the tools that give logic and coherence to important thoughts. Yet, in the running of our economies, this seems to happen quite frequently, and usually with questionable results.

After politicians make major policy decisions, they busy themselves with governing, leaving the real business of running the economy to the so-called experts: economists, finance ministers, and development planners. Most of these professionals are more concerned with the science of social engineering than with the ethical or ideological issues of politics. There is little wonder that the hopes and dreams expressed at UN conferences often lose their meaning once the heads of state have signed the papers and gone home. The real decision-makers , otherwise the ones who ultimately write the checks, are never invited to the meetings in the first place.

If ministers of finance are to change their mission from economic development to sustainable human development, the people who run their economies will have to become much more than economists. They will also have to be social activists who are willing to dialogue with community groups and non-governmental organizations. They will also have to become more involved in the not-so-predictable world of international diplomacy.

It would behoove to study the commitments that heads of state have made at UN conferences long ago and to take the collective ideologies expressed in them seriously. Governments might consider these four passages chosen from historic UN conferences that express important visions for humanity:

1. “We, Heads of State and Government…will create a framework for action to…[promote] democracy, human dignity, social justice, and solidarity at the national, regional and international levels, ensure tolerance, non-violence, pluralism and non-discrimination in full respect of diversity within and among societies.” (Social Summit, 1995)

2. “The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights…The World Conference on Human Rights…reaffirms, on the basis of equality between women and men, a woman’s right to accessible and adequate health care and the widest range of family planning services…” (Vienna Declaration, Conference on Human Rights, 1993)

3. “Peoples’ organizations, women’s groups, and non-governmental organizations are important sources of innovation and action at the local level and have a strong interest and proven ability to promote sustainable livelihoods. Governments, in cooperation with appropriate international and non-governmental organizations should support a community-driven approach to sustainability…“ (UN Conference on Environment and Development, Agenda 21,1992)

4. “Existing inequalities and barriers to women in the workforce should be eliminated and women’s participation in all policy-making and implementation as well as their access to productive resources, and ownership of land and their right to inherit property should be promoted and strengthened.” (Beijing Platform for Action, Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995).

The common denominator in these old, but relevant, UN documents is the message that social equity, gender justice, and human rights are the real purpose of economic growth. The UN meetings that followed since these social development conferences of the 1990s have repeated and re-committed to the same principles. The question remains: Why are we still talking about a stand-alone goal for gender equality and the need to mainstream gender into economic planning? Economists must be qualified to put gender equality into the long string of sound bytes that make up UN recommendations. If they do not, they may not be the best managers of women taxpayers’ dollars.

Exploiting our Children

Bangladeshi Child working in the fields

What makes human beings different from other animals? Bees have a language. Sea otters are great inventors of tools. Gorillas have lifelong family ties and may even fall in love.

There is only one outstanding characteristic that sets humans apart from other animals, although we should hardly be proud to admit it. As far as I know, we are the only species to make slaves of our own offspring.

According to an ILO survey, 168 million of the world’s children work. They make soccer balls and carpets for export. Children are also domestic workers, brick-makers, peddlers, and garbage pickers. Although most child laborers live in developing countries and work in agriculture, there are also many children employed in industrialized countries.

These figures do not reveal the numbers of children who are bonded servants, sexually exploited, physically disabled due to accidents, or exposed to hazardous chemicals. Yet, such conditions are known to prevail in the businesses that hire children. Child soldiers, including girls, are among the most abused workers. Furthermore, the exploitation of the girl-child is hidden, because no one counts daily household tasks as unpaid labor. The Beijing Platform for Action policy document adopted in 1995 at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women declared the plight of the girl-child as one of the Twelve Critical Areas of Concern.

It’s not that human nature is evil. Employers’ motives range from benevolence to pure profit. Particularly if they are relatives, and those who hire children may see their gesture as a rescue operation to save the young from unscrupulous exploiters. Others are less charitable. Like lords in feudal domains, the employers decide the rules. Political and economic structures in place provide no guaranteed safeguards for children. The owners’ personal inclinations determine whether there are fair wages or safe work conditions, rather than follow child labor laws.

Another unknown is why parents send children to work in the first place. Many critics would say that parents are driven by profit. Of course, there are some who cold-heartedly sell their children like unwanted animals. On the other hand, most parents are themselves victims of circumstances: homeless, impoverished and unemployed. Refugees may seek security for daughters and marry them off in return for payment to local nationals. There is very little information about how children are pushed out of their nests into the wild to fend for themselves. It is known that sometimes, middlemen dupe rural families with promises of finding jobs for their daughters. Instead, these middlemen sell the girls into prostitution. In other cases, the change from subsistence to cash economies puts pressure on families to earn wages. Everyone has to pitch in, and older children may work to help support everyone else. In cities, work can be the lesser of two evils; youth who are employed can avoid a life of crime.

There are many questions. Did any of these families really have options? Why are there so many unwanted children in the first place? If women had control over their fertility, wouldn’t they be able to reduce the supply of poor children flowing into the labor market?

One thing is certain. Modern human beings may not be born bad, but they need strong political and legal constraints to remind them of their moral responsibilities. There are standards and conventions that upload these constraints: the ILO conventions, the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and other international agreements. Granted, a child is not likely to take an employer to court to defend their rights. Labor laws are not easy to enforce, because many child laborers work in homes and the informal sector. Yet, these conventions are essential to raise society’s standards for decent human behavior.

The voyage from public awareness to the enforcement of child labor laws may be wild and woolly, but it is well worth the political struggle. If child labor is banished, we would take a progressive step forward in human evolution that may be as significant as the domestication of animals. We will have tamed our own exploitative nature and the base human instinct of self-interest.

What do Rural Women Really Want?

Cheju island woman

Millions of families spend a lifetime trying to get it. Many people feud bitterly when they do. For many older people, they would rather die than let an outsider buy it. No, we’re no talking about family jewels here, but something more important: land. Fertile or meager, rocky or rich — just land.

For most of the world’s small farmers, land is like a healthy savings account. It assures social and economic security, provides access to get credit, and can be sold in hard times as a last resort. In many rural cultures, land ownership is also a matter of respect and dignity. It can affirm a family’s sense of belonging in the community and bind two generations together in a time-honored transaction. If you give your land to the eldest son, he can care for you in your old age. UN Women reports that when women own land, they are less likely to experience violence at home and have more voice in how to spend family income.

So what happens to landless women?

Bina Agawal, the noted feminist economist, reports that there are many cases in India and Bangladesh where widows and divorcees end up working as agricultural laborers on the farms of their well-off brothers or brothers-in-law. Even the women who run their husband’s farms while their husbands work elsewhere have few rights, if any. They are unable to improve production, get credit, or adopt new technologies — all because they do not control the land they cultivate.

In Africa, women produce 70 percent of the continent’s foodstuffs. Yet, women own less than two percent of the world’s land. In countries like Brazil and Kenya, landholdings for women are smaller in size and value than those of men. Ironically, the so-called feminization of poverty has become more lopsided as women’s responsibility for food production is increasing.

That’s only part of the bad news. When prices for water supplies go up, or structural adjustment leads to cuts in health services, poor rural women suffer the most. As their scarce resources are already spread thin, the whole family’s living standard are also lowered. Spending on food, health, and basic needs is more likely to come from women’s earnings. Unfortunately, men in similar situations are more likely to spend extra money on their personal needs, such as tobacco and liquor.

Land remains key to women’s success. When women control land, they reap social and economic benefits. Indian women in the Bodhgaya region reported that there were more family crises involving drunkenness and wife-beating in communities where only men had the titles during land reform. Where women received titles, the relationship between men and women improved. As the women put it, “We had tongues, but could not speak. We had feet, but could not walk. Now that we have land, we have the strength to speak and walk.”

Delegates from 181 countries at the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing pledged to work toward giving rural women the power to “speak and walk.” The Beijing Platform for Action endorses the idea that all women have the equal right to inheritance an important symbolic step. However, that is only a start. Land is the first bank account that rural women need.

Shoes and Economic Miracles

My first experience in foreign aid was in the 1950s, when I helped my parents send shoes to Korean orphans. The orphanage director wrote that the Korean War had wiped out the shoemaking business. If charitable Americans could donate used shoes, children could survive the winter. Within a year, aromatic mountains of faded sneakers, crumbled slip-ons, and boots filled the attic. We sent them all, knowing that some would be sold to buy food.

Nearly 25 years later, South Korea became one of the world’s major exporters of shoes. You could go through piles of shoes on sale in the East Gate Market and find real bargains. With per capita incomes that had increased more than 150 percent, most Koreans could also buy the goods they made.

Economists have tried to draw lessons from the Korean pattern of development. They are particularly intrigued by the close interaction between improvements in human development and economic growth. South Korea’s near-100 percent literacy rate in the 1990s compared favorably with highly industrialized nations. By 1993, Korea’s poorest 20 percent had about one third the average per capita income compared with the poor in the United States, where they had less than one fourth the average per capita.

Most economists acknowledge that Korea’s success was not due to a trickle-down effect from economic growth to social welfare. South Korea’s economy became a prime example of how a resource-poor country can compete in international markets with export-oriented strategies, starting with social, not economic, development. On the eve of its economic take off, South Korea had already reduced its population growth rate. It also had a large pool of skilled labor that included women and girls and had a critical mass of expertise in science and technology.

However, try as they may, many struggling countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America cannot replicate the Korean economic experience. Maybe they have focused too hard on numbers and not enough on the process. Political will may be more important than we ever imagined.

In the South Korean situation, political will at all levels was a major determinant of its economic direction. Korean economists promoted and won support for economic growth policies based on equitable investments in education for the rural poor, including girls. They also successfully argued for public sector spending to upgrade rural life, so a woman’s time and work would be reduced. Investments were made in rural health services and family planning. The Korean National Economic Planning Board carefully monitored rural-urban income distribution, and the transfer of private wealth into public coffers was required.

At the international level, global financial institutions and the United States cooperated to create an international financial and trade structure that favored South Korea’s entry into the global economy of labor-intensive, export-oriented industries. These areas favored the employment of girls in the electronics and garment industries.

Korean national policy probably would have failed without the political will for equity from the bottom-up in its early stages of development. Democracy and labor movements of the 1970s and 1980s among students, factory workers, women, and farmers made economic justice a development issue. Their gains were won at high political costs, and, at times, with their lives. Tae-il Chun was only 22 years old when he burned himself to death in protest of the harsh working conditions of textile workers in the sweatshops of Youngdeungpo district. Factory girls went on strike repeatedly for fairer wages and better work and living conditions in free trade zones. They were strongly supported by women human rights leaders and the Christian Industrial Mission. Rural women asserted their economic and political leadership against the tide of authoritarian rule. These democratic rumblings and disturbances were the key ingredients in creating a stronger, more peaceful transition to an open economy governed by democratic principles. Years later, these principles need to be put front and center of the economic recovery agenda.

We need to take stock of this turbulent political chapter in Korea’s economic history. We should treasure the social and political sacrifices, commemorate the legacies of the democratic and labour movements, and remind political leaders that all of the above ultimately laid a strong foundation for sustainable economic growth.

Lessons from a Swiss Village

I once went to an anthropology conference on European peasants. It was held in a Swiss village on the remote slopes of a beautiful mountain. In the heart of industrialized Europe, a hearty, traditional, peasant way of life had survived — or so we thought. The small Swiss house where I stayed was run by an elderly woman whose cheek colors matched the reddest strawberries I had ever seen, piled high on the breakfast table. Strawberries were among the few cash crops that made it out to the cities. The rest of the fruits and vegetables were destined for old-fashion home cooking. Madame served us vegetables that she grew in her backyard. She also produced cheese and fruit products that were often used for friendly barter. Her vineyards were outstanding examples of artisanal care.

I thought this was idyllic living until I noticed something strange a few days later. I rarely met a young person. The statistics were right. Like poor villages throughout western Europe, the migration of rural youth in Switzerland to cities had resulted in a serious drain of labor from rural areas. Higher education and jobs expanded opportunities for youth in cities, but they also meant that newer generations were abandoning villages. What escaped the eyes of policymakers is that these children also left their parents behind.

The UN needs to pay attention to the plight of rural women, particularly older rural women, because their numbers are increasing. In agricultural communities where retirement exists only if children take over responsibilities, older women must now work longer hours just to survive. Globally, the situation is worse, because only 10 to 20 percent of all landholders are women. When disasters strike, such as prolonged droughts, older women find it harder to access credit and other resources to rebuild their farmlands. This is a loss for the whole of society. The FAO estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, contributing to end to world hunger.

Even in wealthy, developed countries, women farmers live in the south of the north. Like many of their counterparts in developing countries, these groups have lower rates of literacy, poorer health, and less access to modern communications than the average citizen. We would learn a lot if the older women of this Swiss village were invited to sit among us at the United Nations and judge progress from their point of view.

Packing the UN for Davos

As heads of state pack their bags for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there are a few essential documents they should pack in their briefcases. They should pack UN treaties that discuss the rights to economic development, social equities, and human rights. It may not be easy to get the papers together; the documents are likely in the hands of bureaucrats or have already been marked for the archives. However, these papers are excellent references for the Davos discussions on the future of the world economy.  

While UN treaties are known to deal with jurisprudence and international law, they have much richer political meaning. The treaty ratification process requires states to determine how a global ethical standard, such as human rights, applies to specific issues around hiring practices and business management. That connection is unlikely to materialize unless world leaders outside of the UN circle are aware that these documents exist.

Two treaties with particular relevance to the majority of the world’s poor, especially women and children, are the following:

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): As of 2018, the Convention was ratified by 188 countries (although not by the US) and went into force in 1981. It is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Article 11 of CEDAW ensures that state parties take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment. It also guarantees them their rights to work, free choice of profession, promotion, job security, remuneration in respect of work “of equal value.” Other provisions include the right to social security, health and safety in the workplace. More articles provide broad social and political rights, such as the right to education, health, and political participation.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): The CRC is outstanding in international law as the most broadly ratified treaty ever. Currently only two member states have not ratified the CRC: the United States and Somalia. The 191 countries that stand behind the CRC have affirmed the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinion, origin, disability, birth or any other characteristic. The CRC also provides a framework to defend children’s rights as universal, indivisible, and interdependent–all of which are essential elements to rally national support for children’s welfare and end child labor.

Presidents and prime ministers may have left their homes in haste on their way to Davos, but that should not get in the way of making sure that their preparations are adequate. The treaties should be considered quasi-personal travel items. After all, their signatures and those of their eminent predecessors adorn them. The heads of state must accept personal responsibility for these treaties in order to get CEOs in the private sector to take an interest.

A Beginner’s Poverty Index

Poor homes in Kashmir, India

I recently learned that healthcare workers in Los Angeles had carried out the biggest unionization drive since 1937, gathering together 74,000 home care workers. Ironically, one of their demands was their own access to health insurance. It was sobering to learn that the women home care workers, who feed, bathe, and clean the elderly and disabled, weren’t covered by health insurance themselves. They did not have paid vacations or any other benefits normally allotted to full-time workers in the healthcare system.

Something churns inside when you realize that what you do for a living yields such low wages and social benefits that you can’t afford the goods or services you produce. You don’t need complex mathematical equations or quantitative indicators to figure out what constitutes fairness or economic deprivation.

There might be a lesson here for experts who try to measure poverty. They still struggle around identifying markers for economic justice or the right to development, so I suggest we use common sense when science fails. I have my own rapid assessment indicators of social and economic development related to women’s welfare.

One indicator is what I call the “milk indicator.” Dairy cooperatives in India have done wonders to raise family incomes. Groups of women tend to the cows, carry heavy loads of feed, and keep the cows healthy. Children play around the animals and watch them produce a plentiful day’s worth of milk. However, poor women must sell the milk to buy food and other necessities, so many of them must deny their children the very milk they produce. To me, that is an indicator of social deprivation.

Another indicator is what I call the “third world egg indicator.” In many poor countries, well-meaning healthcare workers offer nutritional advice to mothers and recommend to feed the children eggs. In reality, eggs and chickens are often a luxury. They can be so valuable that the poorest farmers sell them to buy grain. I think that a country’s agricultural development policies are failing if farmers cannot afford to eat the foods they produce.

A third indicator is a technology indicator. Household surveyors should ask female electronic workers if they can afford to have televisions. In many developing countries, such luxury items are strictly for the wealthy. In fact, they can be so expensive that entire villages may share just one television. Young women who work in electronic industries in developing countries often live in the pre-industrial world of crowded housing and squalor. They help assemble complex electronic equipment that connect a global communications system, yet they themselves cannot afford to access that world themselves.

Let us create a world where those who contribute to a country’s prosperity do not face the indignity of economic deprivation daily. Let us also use real people’s experiences in UN indicators to measure progress.

The Myth of the Hunter

Man as the fearless hunter is a popular, but unfounded myth about prehistoric society. In this mistaken view, early men braved the wilds to provide most of the family’s food. They supposedly hunted hairy mammoths and brought home wild pig bacon. Men made and shaped culture. They were the great ones in control.

Of course, a variation of this myth portrays men as the sole inventors of fire, tools, and language. The women’s primary role was to support the men’s primary food-providing activities, remain silent partners, and aspire to be ideal mothers. They were presumed to be the weaker sex who stayed close to the home fires, so they could be protected and cook and care for the hunters.

Many fundamentalist religious groups embrace this skewed interpretation of human history. There is no doubt this allows them to declare that there is little contradiction between scientific theories of evolution and religious writings. In the eyes of fundamentalists, God in all His wisdom instilled a social lesson in the biological differences and traditional power relationships between the sexes. Feminists who do not accept biological determination are said to go against the dictates of natural history and divine will.

In the opposite camp, anthropologists who have argued that early human society was more egalitarian. Anthropologists view the main food providers as women, not men. Recent archeological findings at Neolithic sites confirm that most early Homo sapiens did not depend on large animals for food. The scorched beast was only an occasional treat. The real staple foods were roots, nuts, fruits, small game, and other less glamorous comestibles. Far from huddling by the fire, women probably had to roam the grasslands and forests to hunt for animals with nets and gather foodstuffs. All of this activity required as much physical endurance as chasing big game. The most recent anthropological findings also suggest that women were very likely the ones who domesticated plants and invented tools for food processing and storage.

Family planning was part of women’s lives too. Anthropologists report that contemporary hunting and gathering groups, such as the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalihari Desert, used traditional techniques to reduce family size through prolonged breastfeeding, abortion, herbal contraceptives, and abstinence. Kung women knew that they could not wander over large areas of land if they had to carry small children. To adapt to the need for mobility, they limited the numbers of children to around five. There were wide intervals between births with an average spacing of three to four year per child.

According to the most thoughtful and thorough research, women and men in these societies shared political decision-making, and that ethic seems to mirror a general pattern of shared family responsibilities. In brief, almost everything we know about the social and economic life of hunters and gatherers refutes the idea that motherhood was women’s primary role in the beginning. It is also unlikely that she was a passive participant in a man’s world. The question is why the old myth of man, the hunter, persists despite published scientific evidence for several decades. The only possible explanation is sheer stubbornness. Some people find it convenient to disregard scientific evidence, because they use the past to justify the present. There is one person in anthropological circles who is absolutely delighted about this: man, the hunter.

Economic Man Dressed in Women’s Clothes

No one laughs when the economic man comes on stage. He plays his part seriously and well. He’s an old timer in the drama of development conferences. Few delegations bother questioning why he was chosen to play the lead role. His portrayal of human character is familiar and appears to be at the liking of most people in the audience.  

The role requires him to bring to life the average underdog of development: peasants, the unemployed, and landless. These characters are all male of course. He plays other parts equally well. The economic man can be heroic as he swiftly and inexorably moves to reach every national target on time in response to the proper market incentives. The problem is that this rational, predictable character doesn’t resemble anyone we know.  

Above all, the basic market-driven economic man is a two-dimensional petty entrepreneur and insatiable consumer. Common sense suggests that something is missing. Perhaps it’s his emphasis on placing value children’s education instead of one’s own career or the inclination to share with a neighbor. The economic man never strays far from center stage of profit-seeking and personal gain. He wins the national theater awards every year.  

The illusion that everyone has a place in classic economic theories has some merit. We now acknowledge that women are often the main breadwinners and heads of household and that sustainable development policies are also a women’s issue. Similarly, our image of children has evolved as we begin to see them as child laborers or as the exploited work force behind the textile and electronics industries. These advances in our view of the typical active participant in development can only go so far. Our understanding remains skewed by the predominant assumption that women and children are only minor variations of the same old economic man.

The absurdity of this fiction comes clear in a review of projects designed to improve women’s condition. Activist women’s groups have argued for some time that many women are powerless to respond to market incentives in the same way as men can. For example, in order to attract more young mothers to health centers, health fees may be lowered. Mothers may know that they should go to the health center for prenatal examinations, but they may not be allowed to travel alone in public. In societies where women are not considered social adults, they must ask permission to leave the house. Health decisions are made for them, often against their own interests.

To be like the economic man, women must also have the power to make decisions regarding their own incomes. The Beijing Platform for Action called on governments to recognize that women’s decision-making power must start in the home. Married women may be active members of the work force, but if they are acting on a husband’s or a father’s order, they are not fully integrated participants in the economy. They run head-on into social costs that hurt a lot — literally — as husbands living in traditional, patriarchal societies may resort to violence if wives do not hand over their earnings.  

Even if family members do not control women’s economic behavior, poor women may not have access to mass media and information networks that provide necessary economic know-hows, like the best market prices. Most women traders do not have critical information required to react to new economic opportunities. They even may be illiterate and unable to cope with banking procedures to access credit even when available. Let us also state the obvious. They have to understand credit schemes in order to take advantage of them.

The differences in economic behavior go deeper. There is increasing evidence that when they have the voice to speak up in household economic decisions, women are more likely to show more altruistic economic behavior than men. They may go without medicine for the sake of their children or elderly parents. Given the freedom to choose, women are more likely to spend money on goods and services that raise the family’s living standard. Men’s expenditures are much more likely to be on social life and luxury goods.

We would be gravely misled to focus entirely on market-oriented strategies without taking a second look at the social and cultural parameters of human behavior. Basic assumptions behind economic policies, particularly those that affect women, should come under gender scrutiny. Women's economic empowerment is a means to lift society in its entirety out of . It can’t work to just let economic man dress in women’s clothes.

Let Them Eat Chocolate

General MacArthur’s statue in the Whitney Museum stood nearly eight feet tall, his knuckles resting confidently on his hips. His eyes looked sharp, as if he were inspecting you rather than you gazing at him. The larger-than-life statue was a reminder that this man had once wielded uncommon power. With a wave of his hand, he decided the fate of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Koreans during the Korean War.

Memories of American soldiers who served under him hung on the walls, hundreds of small, rectangular blocks bearing the stripes of uniform badges. The dark brown sculpture material added to a mood of solemn silence. Too many soldiers died in what’s called the “forgotten war”. This artistic memorial to the Korean War was long overdue.

When I looked closer at the general’s elbow, there was a sweet, yet pungent, smell. It was coming from his cuff, his jacket, and the walls. It was the brown stuff of children’s dreams and Christmas cheer, none other than the wonderful smell of dark chocolate. For many Korean children who were starving during the war, it was also the scent of America.

The brilliant artist, Ik-Joong Kang, justified his reason for choosing chocolate as the material for his monument. As he explains it, some of his clearest childhood memories were of good-willed American soldiers throwing chocolate bars to children. The soldiers shared some of the most exotic goods imaginable. The children’s favorite was gum, because its flavor lasted forever. Candy went down quicker. Many children hoarded gum and candy wrappers for weeks, smelling them over and over again to relive that satisfying moment.

It is ironic that candy and gum should be the enduring memories of starvation. However, when one is very hungry, the first taste of anything is wonderful and unforgettable. Taste is a conduit to childhood memories. Sadly, for today’s children in war-torn countries, like Afghanistan, Somalia and Rwanda, these memories may best be forgotten.

According to UNICEF, there were 25 million children displaced due to conflict in 2016. Two years later, that number increased to an estimated 30 million children. In the past decade, nearly two million children have been killed in wars, many of whom died of diseases related to malnutrition and a lack of safe water and sanitation. Their own armies have sold international relief goods for arms. Children have waited for food aid that never arrived due to embargoes.

At the annual UN High-level Political Forum, heads of state and ministers report on how their countries progress toward achieving sustainable development goals. While food security, nutrition, and health are central to measuring whether or not these are successful, few governments report on how wars are undermining progress. Unless we invest more in forging peace, refugees will feel that the meetings produce more sweet talk than action.

Follow the Money

Nepalese girls gathering goods

In the midst of the Watergate scandal, the anonymous source Deep Throat urged Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, to forget all the other distractions and “follow the money.” They took the advice, and it ultimately led them to unravel the political intrigue behind Watergate.

What was true for the young media watchdogs is equally relevant to other political situations. Resolutions and campaign promises aside, the real story of the politics of development is where the money is coming from, where it is going, and what it is supposed to achieve. For poor, rural women and girls, the burden of missteps falls on them the hardest. Ask any girls in a mountainous Nepalese village if she has seen UN funds, and she is likely to respond with puzzled looks.

At the annual UN High-level Political Forum, the hope that the private sector would kick in additional resources to make up for shrinking government spending hasn’t been realized yet. The trends in the UN budget crisis are not encouraging. Many women were shocked to learn that the promise of additional resources at the Fourth World Conference on Women was followed only six months later by drastic cuts in the UN’s budget for women’s programs.

The question remains: Does any money reach those who need it? If not, why not?

Here are some answers. At the level of international assistance, high-level corruption may result in goods being siphoned off to private warehouses and cash being spirited away to Swiss bank accounts. However, fraud and mismanagement ultimately bite the hands that feed them. Isolationists and conservatives can cite them as reasons for not giving taxpayers’ money to the UN. Similarly, the abuse of public funds supports arguments for a turn to privatization. However, the private sector seldom shows an inclination to help the poorest of the poor. As a result, the flow of money slows to a trickle, and the oil fields of international funding dry up

The little public money available is often channeled indiscriminately at the national level. Grants are given to small town and village development projects for political reasons and without regard to who is really controlling the funds. In community and household-based data, gross averages hide income disparities within communities. The money flows to the well-organized or well-connected, not necessarily where it is needed the most. Women’s groups are no exception. In more than a few countries, elite women also monopolize access to critical resources.

Does the money have a positive effect? It often depends on the structure of how funds are allocated. A classic example concerns how national health programs were designed to reduce maternal mortality. A ministry of health decides to make maternal mortality a high priority. However, rather than fund programs that could have a positive impact on poor, rural women and girls, local politics sways the health department to build expensive, high-tech health centers in the capital. If there are funds left over, a new machine is purchased. In this scenario, everyone is happy. The politicians get their pictures in the paper at the ribbon-cutting. A few well-to-do patients get access to modern medicine. However, the health prospects of most mothers aren’t changed at all. There is simply no money left over to provide supplies to provincial hospitals or to establish community emergency transport for villagers.

Financing for development is a feminist issue. The current trends show that gender-blind economic policies continue to undervalue women’s unpaid work. One solution would be to demand that governments make their accounts public for all to scrutinize. If we are to be serious at the UN, we need to address the issue of money from the very beginning. In the midst of all the distractions and rhetoric of sustainable development debates, there must be straight talk about cash and how we can be more accountable for its uses.

Education: An Enduring Gift

Burnese girl carrying a child

When I was a child, my aunt to say, “Your education is the only wealth you will have for life. Wars can destroy your home, and someone might steal your land, but no one can take away what you have learned.” She often used a diplomatic tone to disguise a hard scolding, so I thought she was only urging me to get better grades. Her own diplomas were framed and hung prominently over the fireplace of the home library. It was well known among her friends that she loved studying. When my aunt died at the age of 94, she and her husband donated the bulk of their wealthy estate to the University of Michigan as a reminder to others that there are some things money can — and should — buy. She believed that girl’s rights to education was an inalienable human right. It is also a girl’s best chance for a life free from poverty.

When I told a Polish friend about my aunt’s advice, we discovered that her grandmother and my aunt were remarkably like-minded. Her grandmother, also a doctor, had fled Lithuania to escape communist repression. Courageously traveling mostly by foot, it took her months to reach Poland, because armies detained her to help the wounded. We exchanged stories about how refugees leave home in confusion and panic. My friend said, “Do you know the only thing my grandmother took with her when she left? It was her school diploma.”

Asians are known for their traditional veneration of education. In Korean and Chinese traditions, scholars had a higher status than generals or businessmen. However, reverence for education is more prevalent in other cultures than we think. Mexicans, Russians, and many others drive their children to succeed in their studies and teach them to respect their teachers. Although such values are virtuous, a double standard that bars girls from the school yard is still widespread. In many villages, I have seen girls carrying infants, fetching water, and doing household chores in order for their brothers to attend school. The problem is not just narrow-minded parents. Girls who venture out on the road to attend school may be attacked. In highly traditional cultures, educating girls makes them much harder to marry off, because dowries rise with years of schooling.

Better news comes from the United States, where the imbalance between girls and boys at the primary school level has been equalized for many years. That is largely because women battled for girls’ rights to education years ago.  

Investing in education is simply smart planning, because it builds long-term social and economic reserves that can be drawn upon when times are hard. This is not to imply that education is useful only as a social life insurance policy. As development planners are fond of pointing out, there are sound arguments that education — including girls’ education — helps to build strong economies as well. For women and the poor, the security of education has no parallel. Human tragedies strike when least expected, and they often hit women and girls the hardest. For millions of women refugees, their education may be the only jewel they can safely carry to freedom.

In a Chinese Kitchen, It’s Still a Man’s World

During a follow-up meeting to a Beijing women’s conference in China, I joined a group excursion to the Jinsong Vocational School, which was renowned for producing China’s top fashion designers and master chefs. We looked forward to learning about the programs that promoted girls’ education. We wondered if schools could alter the age-old gender stereotypes about women’s work? In theory, schools should be the first places for re-socializing the next generation with the ideals of gender equality. In practice, matters can take a different turn. The Jinsong School was a prime example of that.

At first glance, the School was impressive with its modern architecture and first-rate facilities. The classroom seats overlooked an elaborate model kitchen. There were heavy knives that could lop off a chicken’s neck — or a careless finger — with a single swing. Stainless steel cooking utensils lay in order like surgical instruments next to drum-sized woks. We could clearly see the tops of counters and stoves from an ingenious V-shaped mirror on the wall that captured everything below from a bird’s-eye view. It was a well-planned stage to showcase a master’s skills.

The chef entered the room like a head physician leading his interns. Dressed in white coats and trim cooking hats, the students stood proudly as China’s culinary créme de la créme. Their teacher’s tall hat elevated his stature to a wondrous and authoritative height. We stared as they stood before us for a brief inspection. There was something odd about this class of students: They were all boys. The teacher also was of prime male stock. Where were the girls?

There was much whispering in the crowd but not much protest. In the interest of letting the chef demonstrate how to cook Szechuan chili chicken with peanuts, we let this touchy issue pass. We were promised a cooking lesson followed by a tasting feast, and this soothed us into a cooperative mood. There would be plenty of time to talk about gender equality later.The master chef awed us with his skill. Three chickens had been de-boned and cubed to mathematical precision. He deftly spilled the heaps of meat into the large wok for deep-frying. With the help of his students, he picked up the heavy pan and drained off the oil. He added chopped ginger, garlic, onions, and Chinese herbs. Cornstarch and water were soon followed by peanuts. Much to our surprise, he threw in a dash of ketchup (he confided that this was a nouvelle cuisine touch he added just for foreigners). We were all writing down the recipe furiously, noting important details like the correct temperature for frying. Suddenly, flames leaped up from the sides of the pan. To the chef’s delight, we gasped with amazement. He smiled and calmly tipped the pan to reduce the flames. It was a routine gesture in a master chef’s performance.

Afterwards came the question-and-answer session. A woman asked, “Do you also teach cooking to girls?”

“No,” he answered. “Cooking takes a lot of muscle and stamina, and it is much more suitable for boys.” We could hardly believe our ears. The Jinsong School admissions tests screened out boys who didn’t look strong enough to be cooks. On the other hand, the most attractive girls were admitted to the School as fashion designers. There were no female cooking students.

“What do you do at home?” asked another woman. “Do you cook, or does your wife have to do it all?” The mood was changing into a feminist inquisition. The chef answered that since he cooks all day at school, he hardly feels like doing it when he gets home. He lets his wife take over that job.

The questions continued. Someone asked if the administrators would allow a girl to pursue a cooking diploma if she wanted to learn to cook. The school director explained that each student can freely choose his or her program; however, girls don’t take up cooking because it was “heavy work” and “too hard.” The School also thought that it was unlikely that women chefs could get a job after graduation. In China, hotel and restaurant kitchens were part of a man’s world.

Maybe we should have been more understanding. After all, this prejudice against women chefs is not unique to China. Most famous chefs are men, even in France. Men and women may do the same job, but male chefs get high wages and praise. Women get the unpaid drudgery of daily meals. We suggested that a cultural revolution in China to promote equal work opportunities for women has to start somewhere and that a famous institution like Jinsong is a perfect place to kick it off. The school’s teachers and administrators acknowledged this sage advice with a polite smile.

As we left, I spied a group of women cooks behind the school canteen peeling vegetables. I wondered whether any of them had attended the lecture on Szechuan chili chicken with peanuts. If not, they were being deprived of a wonderful experience. Pity that the rules of tradition held fast even in a modern vocational school. Here, as elsewhere, boys are groomed to become famous chefs, while women are the dutiful assistants on the sidelines.