Anthropologist Questions ‘Girl Effect’

| December 5, 2013

In “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s central premise is that the economic empowerment of women around the world is the answer to overcoming abuse, oppression and poverty — the so-called “girl effect.”

Professor Debbie Durham has researched and published on economic empowerment programs for youth in Botswana, studied aging and class in western Turkey, and conducted research on cultural identity, liberalism and democracy. From her anthropologist’s point of view, the authors get a lot of it wrong.

What are your reservations about Kristof and WuDunn’s book?

This is a journalistic book, and while it meets its mandate to make us aware of human suffering, people reading it easily come away with the idea that girls are persecuted and devalued everywhere — or, possibly, every place outside the West.

Girls everywhere enjoy happy childhoods, says Debbie Durham.

There are, of course, individual examples of horrific treatment of women — and men — everywhere. I am concerned, however, with the readiness with which my students believe that throwing acid in women’s faces is an acceptable practice, or selling a daughter, or leaving a wife untreated in a medical emergency, when they are not typical, and arouse great public outcry in their local settings.

I want my students to know that not all girls around the world are living in situations where they are beaten and abused, and that poverty does not equal abuse and devaluation.

I also think we should look critically at how the book is couched in a neoliberal ideology, which turns away from thinking about community responsibility and interdependency, to hold the individual responsible for his or her own conditions of living. Neoliberalism originally applied to political efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to reduce government; in places like Africa, it meant reducing government food supports, selling off public utilities to private investors, and opening up borders to international capital and free trade — often with devastating effects on local livelihoods and industry.

This book talks about freeing women from abusive husbands or parents, and many development programs now try to free young people from family obligations, and women from demands of parents and in-laws. In neoliberal thought — an economic model of society — this is accomplished by giving people incomes, which enable them to be independent.

Why doesn’t that model work?

When a woman is enabled to start a small business, she is rarely earning the means to independence. Small enterprises like this catch women and men in a small tug-of-war between protecting their investment against claims for assistance from children, spouses, siblings, parents and friends, and the strong need to maintain those relationships against misfortunes and other needs, such as sickness, weeks without customers, or help paying for a child’s school uniform.

In Botswana, a large number of households are headed by women. Those with incomes are often still quite poor and their children fare worse than households with more contributing adults. Those people who have networks of support are both cushioned and happier. Communities are a better means of support than an isolated small business, and governments should be encouraged and given the means to extend services such as health care, schooling and economic investment, instead of curtail it.

Some development programs know this, and focus their efforts on communities, providing potable water or housing for local schoolteachers, for example. But [“Half the Sky”] steers readers away from that kind of thinking: It urges individuals in America to click on their iPhones to lend or give money to a distant person to enable her to flee an abusive husband, [or] an indifferent or hostile local community.

Professor Debbie Durham

Did your concerns about the book prompt you to develop your y:1 course, “Global Girlhoods,” for this semester?

Yes. I know from research and my own experiences in other countries that people find joy and meaning for themselves in just about every situation. Whether it is the overt sexuality of young girls in 1920s Samoa, anticipating a fine wedding gathering in Uganda, choir practices in a candle-lit rondavel, or the illicit delight in using a muezzin’s call to summon the goats, girls find pleasure and look forward to daily events.

Most societies do have practices in which girls or women — and boys and men — feel degraded. I have an anthropological interest in understanding why people find these practices worth pursuing, why women who felt the degradation themselves then want to inflict it on others. Persistence of tradition is not a valid explanation; practices are undertaken in the present and framed by present meanings.

So my interest as an anthropologist in these practices — female genital cutting for example, which some women find empowering — is less to decry them as not in line with my ideas of good and bad, but to understand them as they are thought good and bad options in their own context.

The point of my class is to give the students a sense of how girls live in other cultures with other values, and not to see them as suffering because they’re different. Then we look at the ways in which globalization sets up new dilemmas for girls.

Is the “girl effect” model unfair to men?

From the beginning, some scholars wondered whether its language echoed that of colonialism — where Africa was depicted as a continent of women and children bereft of its enslaved men, or else laboring to support men lounging at ease, waiting to be saved by white Europeans, and heroic British imperialists rescued South Asian women from South Asian men.

University of Toronto graduate student Lauren Classen recently found in a remote and impoverished part of Malawi that the language penetrates the consciousness of local kids. Girls thought themselves inherently worthy of help, writing letters requesting aid because they were girls. Boys, on the other hand, went to some lengths to explain how responsible they were, how hard working. They knew that because they were boys, money given to them might end up wasted on drink, women and self-indulgence — an idea that they had internalized in their own self-assessments.

The girl effect language says that money given to girls saves nations, because girls are mothers, whereas that given to boys is just given to his self-satisfaction, effectively erasing the majority of men who work hard to support their children and extended families.

Across Africa, scholars have noted a “crisis of masculinity” arising not from the declining ability of men to abuse or neglect women, but from their inability to care for families that include women and children, parents, siblings and nieces and nephews — an inability that comes not from drinking their income or spending it frivolously, but from the difficulties in attaining sufficient income through their multiple enterprises.

All that said, I do hope that people from the wealthier West continue to provide opportunity and assistance to people in the poorer parts of the world. I am a longtime donor to Heifer International, for example.

Deeply impoverished governments and difficult living conditions pose considerable challenges to people even as they pursue those things that are valuable to them: access to health care and prophylactics; low-cost or free education supported by well-trained teachers; books and technology; access to food; and especially jobs in places where youth unemployment rates may exceed 70 percent — these are often the real context for the violence to which Kristof and WuDunn are witness.

 

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Category: Features, Features Winter 2013, Winter 2013