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Women Empowerment and (economic) Development

March 22, 2014

Like I mentioned in my previous, there are times (when I have lot of time at hand) to engage in some discussions. I am part of this NGO called CORD (Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development). In that FB group there was a post on Cheryl Wu Dunn’s latest book Half the Sky, a synopsis of which in TED says that women empowerment leads to development. As I am wont to do, I suggested that women empowerment does not necessarily lead to development but vice-versa. A small discussion followed and I am listing some thoughts of mine that I wrote to a very nice lady I was interacting with through email. I also received a gift of the book’s copy from her. How cool is that? Internet is amazing. You end up meeting people randomly and somehow they leave a mark in your life-line. I am sure whenever I open Cheyl Wu Dunn’s book, or when I think about women empowerment, I am reminded of this sweet lady (name with held for privacy purposes). The post itself is below. I wanted to archive the thoughts.

  1. First, let me clarify. I never say women empowerment is not necessary. All I say is: thinking that women empowerment will lead to economic development is a misleading conclusion. Women empowerment will lead to development only in a specific context (when other forces also come into play). Women empowerment is necessary – no doubt. But, even men empowerment is, for that matter. Making this a gender issue will trivialize the development debate.  Or to put it in other words: It (women empowerment) is necessary but not sufficient.
  2. Education does lead to a positive externality as you point out in your mail below (not sharing the details of the email here). Therefore, whether it is women or men, it does have an impact. However, that externality is best utilized when other forces that lead to development come into play – Personal, economic and political freedom. Bill Easterly’s (he lives right in your backyard) latest book, “The Tyranny of Experts” illustrates that. I am planning to get a copy of it soon. These (the freedoms I mentioned before) in some sense are empowerment as well. But, not just confined to education and giving employment opportunities, etc.
             Now come concrete examples.
The examples of women politicians in India only to illustrate that empowerment itself doesn’t lead to development. The other example is the issue of female foeticide. It puzzled economics researchers when they learned that female feticide was infact no less but sometimes even more in urban than in rural areas. If I remember right I believe the authors of poor economics quote even data from Bangalore. One might argue that they should show more details. May be the heavy landless labor population might have skewed that data, etc. However, they are not superficial researchers. So, I can believe them. We can say that even though women are reasonably educated and perhaps earning (which is an equivalent to the empowerment that the synopsis of the book is talking about), the problem just got worse.
          That these “empowered” (or poor un-empowered) making a choice to abort female fetus is akin to another “liberal” woman aborting an unwanted pregnancy when having sex out of wedlock or from a short-term relationship or a relationship where she finds no future. This is no different. In both cases it is a “cost” to bear. In the latter it may not be gender specific (but hey, my heart bleeds the same for male foeticide too).
          Another example: Female illiteracy in India. It took our policy makers and NGO talking heads decades to realize that lot of girls drop out of school simply because:
  1. there are no girls toilets
  2. Lack of sanitary napkins
          Instead the whole focus was on “empowerment”, “female exploitation”, “patriarchal culture”, “caste oppression”…as you know anything can be blamed on caste in India! and on and on…It turned out that parents were willing to send the girls to school. But, the girls were unwilling to go for the above reasons. In some sense, the girls were exercising their freedom (they were empowered. No one was coercing them to go to school or not go to) by choosing not to go to.
         Similar is the case with girl prostitution. I’ve had some interactions with some of these women when I was in Singapore (please don’t get crazy ideas!). There were scores of women from all the poor nations around who are into prostitution. They are stunningly beautiful btw (and still have that innocence flickering in them in spite of being the flesh trade participants). To escape from prevailing conditions, they made a conscious choice of getting into this. They empowered themselves this way.
       Moving beyond this, I want to open the discussion to another perspective. We tend to see women in prostitution, or who remain illiterate, etc as something that they did it beyond their control. We then tend to add a moral color to it. But, it is important to realize that we don’t know what they know. We don’t have access to the same information that is influencing their choices. They yield to those circumstances only because they can’t find other opportunities. There is a market, and they can be players in that market providing certain services. In the case of adolescent boys, a similar market doesn’t exist. Otherwise I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a similar issue with males too. So, they confine themselves to doing menial jobs, low paid labor – “child labor”, crime, etc. In both cases the end goal is the same. They want to stay out of poverty. These poor people are just finding ways that suit their comparative advantage to make a living.
        Significant portion of women staying out of education is an issue but so is the significant portion of men staying out of education as well who are into crime,etc. All these are linked. Few of these “crimes” may be trafficking these women, pimping, and johns, etc which is mostly done by men. So, it is a well complemented system working its own way out of poverty. That is how I look at this issue.
All these issues with a moral color may appeal to the heart but when we look at these dispassionately we come to realize the underlying dynamics.
        More examples are given Bill Easterly’s book “Elusive quest for growth”. Here he takes examples in Africa because people consciously choose not to educate themselves. They figured it did not benefit them. Why? Because it is too costly to invest in that when they don’t see any benefits. Similar trends exist in India also. One eg:
        One of the NGOs that works in remote tribal areas in Orissa mentioned that they work hard to educate these tribals (I am witholding the names for privacy reasons). Until perhaps 5th class it is fine but after that 95% of them drop out. They are comfortable working in their farms. They don’t find much benefit from further education. They are making a conscious choice. They don’t find much use in educating themselves if they can’t find opportunities beyond that. The very same NGOs oppose all kinds of development initiatives and the governments are also corrupted to promote development.
        So, the point I am trying to make is that one should look beyond these platitudes of gender debates. I will read this book now that you were kind enough to send it to me but one does not necessarily need to read that to get an idea. A simple observation around can tell a lot. We tend to confine our thinking into the boundaries imposed by lot of our talking heads and self-proclaimed experts on development.
        What is the way forward then you might ask.
Education, empowerment, etc mean zilch when personal, economic and political freedoms are compromised. The state may spend enormous amount of money and resources to empower and educate but when it controls lot of services that hinder market transactions or spontaneous development initiatives that people themselves take, there will be no progress.
       Let me illustrate with an example. The state can proclaim that schools will be opened and female literacy is a priority. Fine. But, they don’t build girls toilets. In effect, they actively prevent girls education by design although they keep talking about “empowerment” ,etc. When we look at it, the girls are in fact empowered like I said before. They are making a clear choice.
      Another example: Talk all high and big about empowerment and exploitation but then create artificial scarcities by preventing private players to come in. Scarcity of higher education, when primary education is being prioritized (again a necessary but not sufficient) will not help in any ways. People won’t find opportunities to utilize their skills. Preventing private organization of people to create value by restrictive policies will only make matters worse. There is this educated bunch. But the red-tape prevents them from conceiving, pursuing and executing any idea that will add value.
       The developed world had the right policies in place – private property rights, personal, economic and political freedom. That is why women seem more empowered in this part of the world. Whereas in countries like India, China,etc – there is too much of a state control. A strict communist control in China vs Kakistocracy in India. Bad systems, bad rules and bad outcomes go together. These can’t be seen in isolation when we are examining the problem.
       All in all, I am not denying the issues raised by Ms Wu Dunn in her book. I am saying that solving those issues itself may be necessary but not sufficient.  I could also not be right all the time. So, any inputs are welcome in your comments. Would love to learn from your view points as well.
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3 Comments
  1. SriRam permalink

    Regd sanitary napkins

    Inventor of Low cost Sanitary Napkins, Arunachalam Muruganantham .

    Read below article also
    Gurgaon boy designs sanitary napkin that costs only Rs 3
    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/gurgaon/Gurgaon-boy-designs-sanitary-napkin-that-costs-only-Rs-3/articleshow/28119685.cms

    Watch video also

  2. SriRam permalink

    test

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