How do you improve conditions for women?

A friend from the US (and a loyal reader of this blog!) began reading SuperFreakonomics the other day, and sent me some choice quotes from the book about the status of women in India that he found shocking.

“* “midwives in Chennai were sometimes paid $2.50 to smother a baby girl born with a cleft deformity.”
* “Girls are so undervalued in India that there are 35 million fewer females than males in the population.” (emphasis mine)
* “Even in India’s smallest villages, where electricity might be sporadic and clean water hard to find, a pregnant woman can pay a technician to scan her belly with an ultrasound and, if the fetus is female, have an abortion.”
* “In a national health survey, 51 percent of Indian men said that wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances; more surprisingly, 54 percent of women agreed – if, for instance, a wife burns dinner or leaves the house without permission.” (emphasis theirs)”

The sad part for me as I read these facts was that I was not shocked at all – isn’t the pathetic status of women in India old news? That’s why I think Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s article about women in the New York Times Magazine recently did a great service. The article makes the case that the situation of women and girls around the world, especially in poor countries, is the “paramount moral challenge” of this century, like slavery in the 19th century.

As Sue Halpern put it in her review of the book on which Kristof and WuDunn’s article is based, the silence in the media about the outrages perpetuated against women “is what happens when a phenomenon is extensive, entrenched, and so common as to be perpetually old news even while it’s happening.” Kristof and WuDunn recollect their awakening in China where they worked as reporters. When 400 to 800 protestors died in Tiananmen Square, the news “transfixed the world.” The following year, they found a medical study which concluded that 39,000 girl babies died in their first year because parents did not give them the same medical care as boy babies – as many infant girls died every week in China as died in Tiananmen Square. But the issue never got any news coverage at all.

The question is: how do you respond? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to how to improve the conditions of women in poor countries. Besides increasing women’s education, many of the stories that Kristof and WuDunn tell about individual women in their article share a theme – a woman is empowered by her economic independence, a profitable livelihood. They suggest that aid to developing countries be directed at women instead of at men, and they are particularly enamored of microfinance as a good way of getting money to women. But Alice Amsden (my old prof from MIT), in a letter to the editor, responds that these targeted measures are simply not good enough. Citing the evidence of years of failed poverty alleviation efforts in Africa, she says that with increased education for women in the “presence of mass unemployment and an overabundance of small entrepreneurs, a better …. –schooled labor force can’t usually find steady, remunerative work.” Amsden argues that what “women deserve is greater efforts on the demand side, by governments, to create industries and jobs above the subsistence level.” So no targeted interventions towards women – just economic development and job creation, pure and simple.

If changing the economic status of women is difficult, changing attitudes towards women is an even trickier situation, and definitely not a problem limited to poor countries. My friend who wrote in with the facts from India in SuperFreakonomics told me that “in the book, these facts are all setup for a description of a paper by Emily Oster about how cable television adoption seems to make women less willing to tolerate wife-beating and prefer sons. (The paper is here) The analysis is based on 2,700 households in Indian villages that received cable at different times.” More about what the women were watching, and how Oster determined causality is available here.

Soon after Kristof’s article came out, I read this op-ed by a senior magazine editor in the US that argues that somewhere along the way, the push for equality between men and women at work has stalled in America. Women make up half the workforce, but still only earn 77 cents to every dollar that a man earns. Women make up half of all associates at law firms, but they only make up 18% of partners. Why is this? The editor did share this one story that I think explains a lot: in her time as editor-in-chief, many men came to her office asking for a raise or promotion, but not even one woman did. Not one! I found this story astounding – and, given my own mental makeup, totally believable. Sigh…

Whatever it is, something has to change. In 2009, Kristof and WuDunn tell us that only 1% of the world’s landowners are women. Maybe it’s time for something way more radical – worldwide land transfers from men to women. Maybe if we all really started on an equal playing field, things would look very, very different.

Women on Suburban Train

  1. Ninad said:

    I think you would be interested in this piece in the Guardian about superfreakonomics:

    from the article:

    “Freakonomics, of course, is the science of choosing an appropriately wacky or controversial subject (sumo wrestlers, abortion), applying a little economic analysis to it and coming up with a shocking conclusion that will make people blog about you.”

    • nraman said:

      To be fair to me, my blog post was about how the Freakonomics facts were hardly wacky at all. GIVE ME SOME CREDIT HERE NINAD.

      • Ninad said:

        I did not insinuate that your blog was filling that role – my comment was ironic actually – since you began with freakonomics but did not “blog” about it at all!

  2. Ninad said:

    Of course not to say that your blog is about the book.

    On another note, I have some reservations about the use of empirical arguments to prove a girl child in India are “unwanted.” [35 million fewer females than males in the population] I do not disagree with the claim itself, but I disagree with this “the numbers speak for themselves” type argument that Freakonomics makes popular.

    It shifts focus away from the concrete in the problem onto a loud expression of its mere existence.

    • nraman said:

      They *did* steal that one from Amartya Sen. But its useful in one way: it’s easy to see when we’ve made progress on that problem.

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