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The Pay-off from Women's Rights

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
March 8, 2005
Princeton University Press


Long decried as too controversial for foreign policy, the promotion of women's rights is now acknowledged as critical to economic development and good governance, especially in developing countries. Significant research over the past decade has shown that focusing on women is often the best way to reduce birth rates and child mortality; improve health, nutrition and education; stem the spread of HIV/AIDS; build robust and self-sustaining community organizations and encourage grassroots democracy.

The Asian Development Bank has been promoting gender-sensitive judicial and police reforms in Pakistan, for example, and the World Bank is training female political candidates in Morocco. The United States, too, is increasingly embracing women's rights, as a way not only to foster democracy, but also to promote development, curb extremism and fight terrorism, all core objectives of its foreign policy.

Such efforts have paid off in many countries. Gender gaps in infant mortality rates, calorie consumption, school enrollment, literacy levels, access to health care and political participation have narrowed steadily. And they have benefited society at large, by improving living standards, increasing social entrepreneurship and attracting foreign direct investment.

Yet significant gender disparities continue to exist in some areas of southern Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where empowering women is still considered a subversive proposition. In some societies, women's rights are at the front line of a protracted battle between proponents of conservative, patriarchal practices -- often reinforced by religious values -- and those with more moderate, progressive views. Deep tensions are evident in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, and to a lesser extent in Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia. Resolving them will be critical to progress in these countries, for those that suppress women are likely to stagnate economically, fail to develop democratic institutions and become more prone to extremism.

The Bush administration appreciates these dangers, but it has tackled them inconsistently. Washington has supported women's empowerment in reform-oriented countries such as Morocco, but it has not promoted it in countries less amenable to change such as Saudi Arabia. And although it has linked calls for democracy with increased rights for women, especially in the Middle East, and promoted gender equality in its reconstruction plans for Afghanistan and Iraq, it has done too little to enforce them.

The United States must be more aggressive. In particular, it must undertake more programs designed to increase women's educational opportunities, their control over resources and their economic and political participation. It must ratify the 1981 Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women, which 175 countries, including every other industrialized democracy, have ratified. It must earmark more funds, especially from the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Account, for development programs specifically designed to decrease gender gaps. And it should consider making adherence to women's rights a condition for granting military and economic aid to developing countries.

Promoting gender equality will remain a complicated and delicate task, particularly in Muslim societies. But it may be less so than before, now that overwhelming data shows that women are critical to economic development. "The worldwide advancement of women's issues is not only in keeping with the deeply held values of the American people," former Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "It is strongly in our national interest as well." The United States has long advocated women's rights as a moral imperative or as a way to promote democracy. In so doing, it might have compounded the difficulty of its task, by irking conservative religious forces or the authoritarian regimes it otherwise supports. But now Washington can also make an economic case for empowering women, which may be more acceptable to traditionalists. Promoting women's rights because they spur development and economic growth is a powerful way for the United States to advance its foreign policy in the future while minimizing the ideological debates that have frustrated it in the past.

Isobel Coleman '87 is a Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and also the director of its Women and Foreign Policy program. Today is International Women's Day.

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