Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


The Payoff From Women's Rights
By Isobel Coleman


Phillip Longman is Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the forthcoming The Empty Cradle (Basic Books, 2004), from which this article is adapted.


The Cost Of Inequality

Over the past decade, significant research has demonstrated what many have known for a long time: women are critical to economic development, active civil society, and good governance, especially in developing countries. 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.

Much like human rights a generation ago, women's rights were long considered too controversial for mainstream foreign policy. For decades, international development agencies skirted gender issues in highly patriarchal societies. Now, however, they increasingly see women's empowerment as critical to their mandate. The Asian Development Bank is promoting gender-sensitive judicial and police reforms in Pakistan, for example, and the World Bank supports training for 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 strategic objectives.

Women's status has advanced 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 those changes have benefited society at large, improving living standards, increasing social entrepreneurship, and attracting foreign direct investment.

Yet significant gender disparities continue to exist, and in some cases, to grow, in three regions: southern Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. Although the constraints on women living in these areas — conservative, patriarchal practices, often reinforced by religious values — are increasingly recognized as a drag on development, empowering women is still considered a subversive proposition. In some societies, women's rights are at the front line of a protracted battle between religious extremists and those with more moderate, progressive views. Deep tensions are evident in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for example, and to a lesser extent in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Their resolution 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.

Washington appreciates these dangers, but it has struggled to find an appropriate response. Since September 11, 2001, largely thanks to growing awareness of the Taliban's repression of Afghan women, gender equality has become a greater feature of U.S. policy abroad. But the Bush administration's policies have been inconsistent. Although Washington has linked calls for democracy with increased rights for women, especially in the Middle East, it has done too little to enforce these demands. It 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. Although women's rights feature prominently in U.S. reconstruction plans for Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington has not done enough to channel economic and political power to women there.

Given the importance of women to economic development and democratization — both of which are key U.S. foreign policy objectives — Washington must . . .