Sometimes solutions solve problems. Sometimes they go in search of them. And sometimes they deflect attention from what the problems really are.
The idea that empowering women can stop global poverty is quickly becoming this third type of solution. Melinda Gates’s recent book, “The Moment of Lift,” is the latest in 15 years of prominent representations of women in the global South that shift responsibility for global poverty off Northern shoulders and onto sexist local forces. From Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s best seller, “Half the Sky,” to Nike’s viral “Girl Effect” videos, to the Oscar-winning documentary “Period. End of Sentence” about “period poverty,” our conversations about poor women focus on how liberating them from their cultures will stop them from being poor.
Of course, women all over the world desperately need gender equality. But the way we are putting women’s empowerment at the center of our picture of global poverty ends up doing more than drawing attention to sexism. We are constructing a narrative that absolves us — citizens of wealthy countries — and places other culprits in our place.
Consider Jocelyn, a woman in the slums of Manila who stars in a video promoting Coca-Cola’s “#5by20” campaign for women’s empowerment. Now that she has attended a jewelry-making program the company sponsors, she’s become “inspired to work hard” and leave her drunk, abusive husband. Or the narrative in “Period. End of Sentence” about how menstrual taboos cause girls to leave school. Or the discussion of infant mortality caused by belief in evil spirits that takes center stage in Ms. Gates’s discussion of maternal and child health. Narratives like these follow a simple formula: Women in the global South are kept from doing valuable things by local customs or brown and black men.
This picture is partial at best, given what the causes of women’s poverty and oppression really are. Policies promoted by wealthy governments are undeniably a driver of the fact that almost half of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 a day. For example, rich countries often foist unfair trade agreements on poor ones. They typically require developing countries to accept imports while restricting the entry of products from developing countries into their own markets. Similarly, patent laws that protect drug companies often deny lifesaving medicines to the poor.
These policies don’t just cause women to be poor; they cause them to be unequal. In response to pressure from the International Monetary Fund, 34 countries are reducing health care expenditures. When health care is reduced, people don’t stop getting sick; women pick up the slack by caring for them for free. When I.M.F. policies encourage countries to reduce the size of their social security pies, it becomes virtually impossible to extend labor protections to workers in the informal sectors where women are concentrated.
Postcolonial feminists have argued that Westerners are invested in an idea of themselves as “modern”: in other words, morally advanced and distanced from tradition. Tradition, in this view, is what causes hierarchy — placing feudal landowners above serfs and men above women. If tradition causes hierarchy, and Western cultures have transcended tradition, then sexism primarily exists in other “backward” cultures. Yet these assumptions are clearly false.
Add a near-complete silence on the global economy to images of development programs helping women, and we get a picture of Northern involvement that is uniformly positive. One where we are lifting poor women up, and their cultures and families are tearing them down.
Proponents of unrestricted capitalism also promote the idea that ending poverty is a matter of changing individual poor people one by one — teaching a man to fish is supposed to feed him for a lifetime. Scratch the surface, and we can see that portrays his poverty as caused by lack of knowledge, rather than, say, the fact that there are no fish in the ocean.
Similarly, we love a good success story about a woman lifting herself up with a goat or a sewing machine. During the 20th century, images of poor women as victims were all the rage. Today, we see them as superheroes-in-waiting, ready to lift up their families and countries once a $70 loan frees them from their husbands and the cultural expectations that prevent them from working for pay.
Yet the type of work poor women do, and that development programs funnel them into, is not the kind that brings people out of poverty. Goat farmer, maid and seamstress, for example, are poorly paid jobs with no benefits that leave women vulnerable to abuse. They are also precarious — there one day and gone the next. Better jobs will not appear unless the global economy changes. Gendered employment discrimination is a serious problem, but it’s not as though most developing countries are teeming with well-paid jobs that women are excluded from.
The assertion that women just need a job in order to escape poverty suggests that the problem lies in their not working enough. But women in the global South are, as Diane Elson puts it, an “overutilized” resource. Women who are supposed to be pulling their families out of poverty are already cooking, carrying fuel, farming, and caring for children and elderly people for more than 14 hours a day. This work affects women across cultures, but the global economy makes the burdens on Southern women especially intense.
Rather than suggesting that poor women don’t work enough, the conventional narrative sometimes suggests they don’t know enough. Coca-Cola’s Jocelyn needed to learn to make jewelry. In Ms. Gates’s book, female farmers need technology in the form of genetically modified seeds. Yet hunger is driven more by lack of purchasing power than by lack of food. Food farmed by rural African women routinely leaves for cities and other countries. All the while, international financial institutions encourage policies that push farmers in Africa off their land.
The concept of women’s empowerment did not have to turn into one that trains our gaze on local causes of poverty. The concept’s origins are usually traced to women activists from the global South, whose vision included transformation of local and global institutions. This meant changing the economic rules of the game that kept women behind and giving women a voice at the global decision-making table. Empowering poor women was, in their eyes, inextricable from doing something about the vast gulf separating the global rich and poor.
Drawing attention to the situation of poor women may seem to be a good thing, even if our way of doing so omits our causal role in their poverty. But as long as we don’t understand the scope of the problem, we won’t go far enough in solving it. In fact, we might end up making it worse. The result of focusing on income generation has been a “feminization of responsibility,” where women do more and more to support their families while ignoring their own needs and watching their status in their households and societies go down.
Instead of basing our actions on the idea that women aren’t working enough, or that their cultures prevent them from working, we should acknowledge that the global economy is demanding too much from women who are already overtaxed. Or even more modestly, we could start talking, even a little bit, about how the policies of rich countries are part of the poverty puzzle.
So the next time you see a celebration of women’s empowerment as the solution, ask yourself what the problem is. You might realize the problem is not with poor women across the world, but with us.
Serene J. Khader is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and the author of “Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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