Emma Watson is great, but…

I’ve watched Emma Watson’s speech at the UN to launch HeForShe campaign more than once since Saturday. I think it’s really wonderful – she specifically addresses men who are afraid of feminism and rallies them to become supporters of gender equality. The immediate backlash from the depths of the internet against her just reinforced the need for her message.


Why is a young, wealthy, white woman spreading this message? Mind you, as a young, well-off, white woman, I’m not saying she can’t do a great job spreading this message (as indeed she has). I understand the reasons she was chosen – she’s UN Women’s ambassador, she has millions of fans who grew up with her as Hermione Granger, yes.

Basically, the UN knew that if Hermione – I mean Emma Watson, was speaking, people would tune in – Julia Zulver


This is a message for men to be partners in feminism. This is a message for men who think feminism is dangerous, who think feminism is a threat to them. Men who know what feminism is and are comfortable with it are already on board. Men who are threatened by feminism, or think it is a movement to disenfranchise them, are the target of this campaign.

So why isn’t a man spreading this message? A man who is recognized as stereotypically “masculine.” A man that the opponents of women’s equality cannot call “pussy” or “weak.” A man who speaks their language, but can explain why gender equality benefits everyone. A man who says that oppressing women and girls is not “manly.” A man who is willing to understand his position of power in the world and is willing to learn to share it.

I admit, this has been buzzing around in my head for a few days now, following a conversation with a coworker who explained why she wants a man as the main speaker for a Violence Against Women event she is coordinating. Then, I read Julia Zulver’s piece and Mia McKenzie’s critique. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, their message is the same: Emma Watson is great,  but…

We need to pull the calls for feminist solidarity away from privileged white feminists.  Emma Watson as the voice of feminism just reinforces the exclusion of all of the other feminist voices out there: the voices that are not white, Western, cisgender, heterosexual, or wealthy. Does that mean if you are white, Wester, cis, hetro, and/or wealthy, you cannot be oppressed or fight for equal rights? Of course not. But it’s time to give the spotlight to those other voices. It’s time to listen to other perspectives, other ideas.

The people with the most privilege are centered in the discussion, while the people who are the most oppressed are an afterthought, at best. De-centralizing women in conversations about gender inequality isn’t good. – Mia McKenzie

So who should the UN have asked? If the campaign needed to be launched by a woman, why not the head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka herself? As a black South African woman, she certainly has an interesting point of view on this topic. If they wanted a man, how about Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Or in keeping with the Harry Potter theme, Daniel Radcliffe? There are plenty of well-known men who consider themselves feminists.

Let’s let the lesser-known voices of feminism tell their stories. Let’s let feminist men, trans* feminists, non-white feminists have their say in a wider forum. Let’s have #HeForShe pave the way for a greater conversation around gender equality, racial equality, human equality. Let’s talk about breaking down the power structures that so many people do not even realize exist. Let’s make equal rights for everyone a priority.

Climate Change Most Impacts Women and Girls

On November 19, the World Bank published an alarming report about the effects of a 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature on every country in the world, but particularly those that are already poor and vulnerable.  Jim Yong Kim, the Bank’s president, is hoping it will shock the world into action to prevent further global climate change.  However, the report glosses over the gender differentiated impacts of climate change: women and girls are by far the hardest hit by environmental changes. Climate change most greatly impacts the most vulnerable, who are primarily women and girls.  In addition, the nature of gender roles around the world means that women’s work is impacted by drought and inconsistent rainfall, flooding, and extreme weather events.  Because they are marginalized, they also do not have a voice in the discussions about alleviating or addressing climate change.

Why are women and girls so much more vulnerable to climate change? Consider a common example of the impact of climate change on a task that usually falls to women and girls: collecting water. As the climate in an already semi-arid region heats, streams, rivers, and wells near a village or town dry up or become more scarce.  As a result, women and girls must travel further to get water, increasing their risk of assault, taking more time that could go to studying,  creating wealth, or participating in other empowering activities.  There are also health consequences that will hit women and children the hardest, such as malnutrition from food shortage, heat-related mortality, and sanitation-related diseases.  Natural disasters, increased in intensity by climate change, kill women at a higher rate then men, frequently because women do not have the communications resources to learn about an impending disaster, or the skills to survive such a disaster or its aftermath.

The primary reason women and girls are so hard-hit by climate change, however, is because they are already marginalized in much of the world.  They are not a part of grassroots or top-level decision making processes about any issue, from farming techniques that might be environmentally friendly to community disaster response.  This is caused by many gendered cultural and community barriers that inhibit gender equality in all areas.

Research on the gendered impact of climate change is spotty, although growing as awareness of the situation comes to light. DFID and Gender CC are both sponsors of research and education to raise awareness of the gendered consequences of climate change, and how women and girls are being left out of the conversation about prevention and solutions.  It’s a shame that the World Bank couldn’t add the gender issues to their report.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity – Part II

Trigger warnings: sexual abuse and rape.

The second part of Half the Sky is much grimmer than the first.  Partway through the first segment, my other half requested that I stop watching the documentary in the main room, as it was getting to be too much for him.

That segment, on maternal mortality in Somaliland,  is much more about female genital mutilation (FGM).  FGM prevents women from being able to give birth in a normal way, leading to preventable complications in pregnancy and labor.  While the actual cutting procedure is not shown, it is described in great detail.  Although FGM poses enormous risks to both girls as they are growing up and then to women as they have children, it is deeply ingrained in many cultures.  A “cutter” interviewed explained that FGM is intended to keep girls “pure” and ensure that they are not “wild” – i.e. sexually active before marriage.  Happily, a hospital started by Edna Adan, a former United Nations employee and midwife, is fighting back.  Adan’s hospital is training midwives to work throughout rural Somaliland, combating both maternal mortality from unskilled births and difficult labor and FGM through education of women and girls about the risks and effects.

The film moves to Kolkata, India, where Urmi Basu works with women in the prostitute sub-caste in the red light district.  She is trying to educate girls so they do not follow their mothers and grandmothers into prostitution.  Basu explains that girls follow the trade of their mothers because neither can see another alternative for the girl.  The caste system has so entrenched their way of life that there is no reason to leave it, or so many of the women think.  Even if a girl is going to school, like Monisha, the young woman Kristof and America Fererra meet, there is still a strong chance she will be forced into prostitution to earn money for her family.  Although Basu is trying to provide for new opportunities for girls in the red-light district, it is an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, a former prostitute, Jane, shares with Olivia Wilde her dressmaking business funded by microloans. With the income from her business, she is able to send her children to school and buy a house out of the slums she used to live in.  Economic empowerment is important to her, and the millions of women like her, to lift out of poverty and sexual abuse caused by a lack of opportunity and financial security.  Unfortunately, while Jane’s story encompasses the successes of microfinance and similar programs, millions of women still do not have access to credit, fair wages, or property ownership – all important parts of economic empowerment. The documentary also does not go into detail on the criticisms of microfinance.

Overall, the Half the Sky documentary is fantastic. I highly recommend it to anyone who has read and loved the book. Be aware that watching this movie and reading this book will change your life.  It will make you uncomfortably aware of your privilege  and will motivate you to find a way to use that privilege to change women’s lives around the world. The explicit details of FGM may make you squirm, but hopefully they will also inspire you.   There are so many interlinked ways that women are oppressed and exploited.  As the film says, even helping one girl (or woman) can make a big difference.

The film is no longer available free on PBS but can be bought or rented on iTunes.  DVDs are coming out soon. Visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org for more information.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity – Part I

Trigger warning: Discussions of rape, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.

On Monday, October 1, Half the Sky, the companion documentary to the book of the same title by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, premiered on PBS.  It starts with George Clooney, Meg Ryan, and other celebrities talking about the women and girls they met around the world, and learning about the issues they face. The film immediately explains it’s reasoning for using celebrities: they are more recognizable than journalists, and thus any project with them attached will automatically get more attention. As Kristof explains the background and situation of each country and issue to the celebrity in each segment, he educates the viewer as well.

If you have not read the book, you should stop here, go get it, read it, and then come back.  Of course, the documentary is stand-alone, but the book is a powerful introduction to women’s issues around the world, and to some of the major players featured in the documentary.

The documentary is a powerful visual complement to the book.  It’s one thing to read about the difficulties raiding a brothel to rescue girls enslaved there – it’s another to watch the raid as it unfolds and see the faces of the victims and their abusers, hear victim’s voices as they tell their stories.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is highlighted in the first segment by introducing women in Sierra Leone, where rape is a culturally accepted practice. It’s more effective for change to come from inside a culture, rather than people from the outside telling them everything they do is wrong, Kristof notes. Amie Kandeh, an International Rescue Committee director of several shelters for sexually abused women is Leonese herself, and therefore is effective to some extent, because she is a member of the culture and community.  She supports those who have been raped and assaulted and reassures them despite the stigma of being a victim. The  social and family consequences of victims are hard – loss of home, educational opportunity, and the ability to marry. Although the police may arrest a suspect, there is very little prosecution or conviction of rapists.

The story continues with Somaly Mam, who rescues and teaches sex slaves in Cambodia.  Her goal is to educate, find employment for, and empower the girls to “say no, if they want to say no.”  Meg Ryan joins Kristof in Cambodia for this segment, which highlights Mam’s mentees and the challenges they face as they recover from the abuse and trauma they faced daily in the brothel.  The segment features a daring raid on a brothel near the Thai border involving Mam, Kristof, and police. What is great about Mam’s story, and the stories of her girls is that they have come from nightmares and now can run, laugh, and play.  They are able to give and receive love and affection.

The episode concludes with a less traumatic segment about educating girls in Vietnam with Room to Read. Educating girls around the world is challenging, but in Southeast Asia, as much of East Asia and India, girls are not valued the way boys are.  Many families do not see the point of educating a girl, yet educating girls is one of the strongest correlations to improved livelihood for both genders. Although girls face opposition to their education, they will do whatever it takes to go to school – bike 17 miles each day or rise at 3AM to do housework before school.

Each segment highlights a particular story, drawing in the viewer to be an intensely personal part of the challenges women face around the world. Gender-based violence, sexual slavery and trafficking, and education are issues everywhere, not just in the countries used as examples.  Raising awareness through the documentary and the book is only the first step.  Shining the light on these issues will hopefully spur others to action against the cultural, structural, economic, and legal opposition to women’s empowerment and women’s rights.

What I like about the structure of the film is that international “experts” like Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem  and Melanne Verveer speak about each issue following the personal stories.  They bring it from the personal to the high level, linking an individual’s situation to the international situation and what a person from the United States can do, whether celebrity or just ordinary citizen.

Come back next week for an overview of Part II!

Gender Mainstreaming in Development

Although the concept of gender mainstreaming has been around since the 1980s, in practice it has not been implemented much into development projects and policies.  The basic idea of gender mainstreaming is to determine the impacts of policy and programs on both men and women.  It sounds simple, yet it can be challenging to identify every single implication an action can have on both genders.

For example: let’s say that we want to launch a program that uses SMS messages to let street vendors know the price of a kilo of mangos each day.  In theory, this will allow them to purchase their mangoes wholesale at the market price or at least without a high markup.  Instantly, however, there is a problem. First, how many of these mango vendors have cell phones? Although they are becoming more common throughout the world, there are still major gaps in mobile phone ownership among women (“women [are] 21 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone in low- to middle-income countries.”) Only 37% of such women have even sent an SMS. And are all the vendors at an adequate level of literacy to understand the messages?

To determine the answers to our questions, we convene a group of mango vendors to discuss the program.  Another set of questions are presented: when can we hold this meeting? Who should be involved?  The vast majority of community planning around the world involves only men, even if the project or policy will affect both genders. If we schedule the meeting, we should invite women vendors as well as male vendors.  However, the women will probably have child care needs and household obligations in addition to their sales, so they will have limited time to come to any sort of meeting.

As you can see from this small example, including gender in just the planning process of a small project is complex and has many different needs for the different genders to be included.  Doing this on a wider scale – an ongoing large project, a institutional policy, or a government policy, for example – has many more paths that lead to unintended and unexpected consequences.  However, gender mainstreaming is key to including women in development, which in turn is necessary for development initiatives to succeed in the long run. Poor enactment of gender mainstreaming, partial mainstreaming, or lack of training and budget to implement it in in an organization’s policies and projects are the main reason gender mainstreaming is faltering.

Development Solutions: Microfinance

Development Solutions is an infrequent series that looks at various techniques used in development practice.

Muhammad Yunis, low-income people around the world – especially women

Microfinance and microcredit

Began officially in Bangladesh, but has since spread throughout the world.

According to Wikipedia, microfinance has been around in various forms since the 1400s, but it’s current incarnation was developed by Yunis in the 1970s at Grameen Bank.

Banks do not typically cover small loans less than a certain amount, and poorer people typically do not have credit, collateral, or access to banks anyway.  Many of the enterprises that microfinance customers are getting loans need the equivalent of only $50 or $100.  Banks generally require identification information to open a savings account that people on the low end of the economy do not have or cannot get easily.  Women, in particular, may need a male relative or husband to approve any formal financial transactions. Instead, loans are taken from informal, sometimes shady lenders at exorbitant rates and savings are kept “under the mattress” so to speak.

According to some studies, women are economically and socially empowered through microfinance products because they have control over some money, so they can decide how it is used in the household, and also have better standing in the community.

Grameen Bank and the hundreds of other microfinance operations around the world act as bankers on the micro- and small- scale. Most operations use the model pioneered by Grameen: lending groups are formed within a village.  Each member receives a small loan for her business.  Repayments are collected on a weekly basis, as are contributions to savings accounts.  The payments and savings are collected by a bank officer who transfers them to accounts at the bank branch. With the advent of mobile banking options, it is easier than ever for participants to track their repayment and savings levels.  When the initial loan is repaid, most operations give the option to talk out another, larger loan.

Most microfinance banks work with women because extensive studies have shown that women are more likely to repay their loans, and more likely to use the profits from business to feed, clothe, and educate their children than male credit recipients. Many programs provide not only credit and savings, but also business training, health and nutrition education and services, and more.

Microfinance, like all “solutions” to development, has its problems and criticisms.  One of the major criticisms of Yunis himself is that the interest rates set at Grameen and other microfinance institutions is just as outrageously high as those from informal moneylenders. Also, loan groups may bully or shun a member who is having difficulty repaying.  Women’s “empowerment” through increased economic agency can increase violence in the home, or she may not actually have control over the money she earns.  FInally, there is difficulty in transitioning a micro- or small enterprise to medium- and large-scale operations financed by larger banks.

While microfinance may not be the perfect way to empower women, educate children, and increase incomes in low-income areas, it does fill a niche that is necessary for small-scale entrepreneurs.  As long as microfinance providers keep in mind the challenges that come along with the opportunities that their services provide, and are continually evaluating programs, microfinance is certainly a good tool in the development practice box.

People Called Women

Gender in development practice often revolves around trying to include women as participants in programs or developing programs specifically aimed at women.   This can be confusing to those outside the development community with no training in gender studies – aren’t women a part of the communities being reached? Why would specific initiatives or strategies be necessary to include them?

In truth, women and girls are not included as full members of communities throughout the world. Exclusion is visible even in our own society in the current debates about equal pay for equal work and a woman’s right to do as she wishes with her body. Frequently, development programs do not address the social and economic challenges to women’s participation.  However, in recent decades, and particularly in the last few years, development organizations are beginning to refocus on women and their role in international development. In the last several years, gender in development has become a “hot” or “sexy” issue with the publication of Half the Sky, the release of the Millennium Development Goals, and the launch of UN Women.

The interest in including gender aspects of development seems to have begun with Muhammad Yunis and microfinance. For a while, microfinance was seen as the answer to all development problems.  Studies have shown that women are more likely to repay a microloan and more likely to use the money earned from a business to feed their families and send their children to school. Millions started enterprises or were able to finance existing businesses through microloans.

Although microfinance has seen something of a backlash, most development programs today, including all USAID-funded programs, are designed to include women or gender equality in some way – which involves overcoming obstacles to women’s participation.  Women are generally seen as caregivers in most societies, so they need childcare.  They cook and care for the home, so they need programs that address their time constraints.  Programs that successfully integrate women recognize the specific challenges that women in the community face and overcome them.

Unfortunately, in many societies, women who become economically empowered, have access to capital inputs like land and loans, and are educated face increased gender-based violence (GBV) and may be shunned from the community as “immoral” or “unmarriageable”.  That is why gender in development cannot be only about women and girls.  It must also include men and boys. They need to be educated and included so that they do not see women’s empowerment as a threat, but as an opportunity.  The roots of GBV, in particular, are in the relationships between women and men and their roles in the community.  Only by working with all members of the community, both men and women, will development truly move forward.