Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wealth Discrepancies and Women's Issues: from the Developing to the Developed World

The New York Times Magazine has come out with a piece of investigative journalism highlighting a global issue that hits close to home for many progressives: women’s rights. Undeniably, if we are to address inequality and social injustices on a global scale, the treatment of women ranks among such issues as land rights, clashes over drug routes, religious disputes, and any other political confrontation that has taken on violent tones. The most exceptional aspect to the issue of women’s rights is the intimacy involved. Clashes often take place not in the streets or battlefield, but in the very homes and workplaces of people involved. This blog thanks Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn for bringing many of these issues to light.

However, we must ask ourselves about some of the assumptions our authors are dealing with. When addressing a large hotel-turned-brothel in India, for example, the authors chronicle a young girl who wishes to work as a maid, but instead is beaten, raped, and forced into prostitution and slavery. This is a grim, yet accurate portrayal of the life many women encounter globally. The authors go on to state, “In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy.”

It is at this point that the investigative journalist must ask the bigger, perhaps more obvious question. Who were the patrons of this hotel in India’s capital? Who visited the hotel and expected to have a young prostitute at-hand? From what countries do these guests come? For what companies do they work?

To assert that “poor countries” simply need more education to send more individuals into the “formal economy” is to omit the role that members of wealthy nations who participate daily in their economies play in the problem. Is it not possible that “formal economies” contribute to—and benefit from—abuse, rape, prostitution, and slavery?

Perhaps for the sake of asserting some optimism, the authors include an anecdote about Terrari Trent, a Zimbabwean girl who overcomes an abusive marriage, and goes on to receive a PhD from a university in the U.S. The assumption seems to be that in wealthy cities of wealthy countries—say, New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, etc.—brutal discrepancies do not exist. However, Terrari is the exception, not the rule. Too often, women and girl immigrants risk their lives and families to make it to one of these presumed havens of compassion, only to find themselves in similar conditions to those described in the New Delhi hotel.

In another instance of extreme tunnel vision, the authors state, “If you’re reading this article, the phrase ‘gender discrimination’ might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved.” Yet how removed is the developing world from the laptops on which we receive our daily newspaper? A shocking percentage of the products we (in the developed world) take for granted are the effects of exploitation of resources and labor in the developing world. In fact, the developed and undeveloped worlds depend so heavily on each other that without one, the other collapses. Also, who at the New York Times wishes to argue that de facto slavery does not exist in our own country?

In perhaps the most irresponsible statement of the whole Sunday Times, we read that “If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries.” If it were only the poor who were paying for prostitution it would be a meager economic endeavor. However, the pervasiveness of prostitution (as well as studies and common sense) indicates that the primary cause of prostitution globally is the sponsorship of wealthy men from wealthy nations.

To be clear, I thank the authors for their contribution to our collective awareness of such a grave issue. I much prefer a flawed piece to no piece at all, and its location as a centerpiece of the New York Times Magazine ensures that this article will be widely read by an educated audience. But please, let’s not blame the horrendous crimes committed against women and girls on poverty and poor people; until we see that these are two symptoms of the same disease, neither will be addressed effectively.

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