Last Updated on April 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1143
Saima Muhammad’s first loan from the Kashf Foundation was for sixty-five dollars, which she used to buy beads and cloth. She then sold embroidery “in the markets of Lahore,” made payments on her loan, and reinvested the profits. Now, Saima employs thirty families in her neighborhood. She has become the primary provider in her household and plans to send all three of her daughters “through high school, and maybe to college as well.”
Microfinance is often able to achieve what charity and good intentions cannot: elevated social and financial status for women who can provide for themselves. Kashf loans money to groups of twenty-five women who act as guarantors for each other’s debts. They gather regularly to exchange payments and ideas, and to offer support as they develop financial habits and new roles within their community.
Goretti Nyabenda lives in northern Burundi—“one of the loveliest spots in Africa,” as well as one of the poorest. Goretti describes the years she spent living like a prisoner in her hut, unable to leave without her husband’s permission, and unlikely to receive it. Despite living in a region with a high prevalence of malaria, the family could not afford to buy bed nets for all six of their children, in part because Goretti’s husband spent 30 percent of their “disposable income” on banana beer.
Goretti’s life changed when she joined CARE, a Village Savings and Loan Program that draws its capital from small shares invested by members of a women’s group. The group issues a loan to one member, who “must invest it in a money-making effort and then repay the sum with interest.” Then the next woman can borrow.
In addition to organizing micro-lending projects, the CARE program contracts nurses to provide the groups with “health education” regarding vaccinations, STDs, and contraceptives. Goretti reports that many women in her group had been unaware that they had STDs; once they learned, they were able to treat them. For her part, she wishes she had known about birth control before she had six children, but she is grateful that she learned about it before having ten.
Zhang Yin is a “petite, ebullient Chinese woman” who transformed a wastepaper recycling company into a billion-dollar enterprise. Her business imports paper from California to China, where it is recycled into corrugated cardboard boxes that are used to export products back to the United States. According to the Huron Report, “six of the ten richest self-made women in the world are now Chinese.”
Kristof and WuDunn argue that despite China’s many human rights abuses, there has been at least one beneficial legacy of the Communist revolution: the shift toward economic liberty for women. When peasant girls began working in factories, Chinese export industries were able to increase their production capacity exponentially. Financial independence gave women greater autonomy, which contributed to delayed marriage and childbearing, as well as more equitable relationships. China owes much of its current success as a world power to its female workforce.
Rwanda has also emerged from a horrific era, the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of 800,000 citizens, with a greater appreciation for its female population. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s rebel-leader-turned-president, has created new constitutional mandates to ensure that women make up no less than 30 percent of parliament. The country has had little trouble meeting its goal; by 2008, female legislators held 55 percent of seats in Rwanda’s lower house. It is, perhaps uncoincidentally, now “one of the least corrupt, fastest-growing, and best-governed countries in Africa.”
In defiance of international campaigns to end the practice, female genital cutting takes place “once every ten seconds.” It occurs most often among African Muslims and, to a lesser degree, African Christians.
More than 130 million women have endured “the most common form of cutting,” clitoral amputation, and three million more are cut each year in Africa alone. In Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia, “the entire genital area” is removed, including the clitoris, labia, and external genitalia. The “vaginal opening” is then sewn shut, except for a small opening left to release menstrual blood. The process is called infibulation, and it allows men to ensure they are receiving a virgin on their wedding night. The vagina is “reopened” with a knife before the couple has sex.
Some women’s rights advocates have started to explore new approaches to ending the dangerous tradition. Instead of female genital “mutilation,” they use the more “neutral term,” female genital “cutting,” which implies a less judgmental view of women who have endured the ritual. The aid group Tostan uses “people’s rights” community meetings to teach men and women about the right to choose what happens to their own bodies. Local leaders who have themselves been cut, like Edna Adan, often find their communities more willing to listen to people from within their own culture. Most outside efforts fail, the authors argue, because “they [are] decreed by foreigners high up in the treetops.” Change is more likely to endure when it receives support from the community itself.
Kristof and WuDunn compare gender inequality to the civil rights and environmental movements of the twentieth century, when many Americans who had been unwilling to acknowledge the injustices before them were suddenly forced to look upon a changing world. The problem with modeling the women’s rights movement after these American “domestic challenges” is that women’s oppression is no more an American issue, or even a women’s issue, “than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue.”
The “ideal model” to emulate is the British drive to end slavery in its territories. In the 1780s, “slavery was an unquestioned part of the global landscape,” but by 1807, British opinion had turned against the once “inevitable” institution, and it was abolished throughout the empire. Citizens supported their country’s “moral leadership” at no small cost to themselves, as the slave trade supported the agricultural economies of British territories.
By the nineteenth century, the horrors of the slave trade occurred out of sight of England, and many people had come to diminish the suffering borne by the “inferior savages” in distant colonies. It was not until British citizens were confronted by abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s evidence of “manacles, branding irons, thumbscrews, leg shackles, and gruesome implements that were used to force a slave’s jaw open” that they came to understand the true brutality of the packed slave ships. Suddenly, their moral discomfort became political conviction.
Crimes against women and girls are being diminished today by people who no longer have the plausible deniability of the past. The problems are visible to all but those who refuse to look. Now is the time for “moral leadership” among all those who have ignored or even profited from the dehumanization of women. Kristof and WuDunn urge readers to take a stand.
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