A lot is said about advancing the cause of women worldwide, and it just makes sense. Studies have shown that when women are educated, given the right to make their own family planning choices and given economic opportunities, the fate of a country can be turned around. Sadly, no matter the economic, political, social and moral benefits that could come from treating women as equals, women are treated as expendable second-class citizens who nevertheless are expected to support families and communities. This is especially true in developing countries, where the role of the community and the family is intrinsically important to success, and survival in some cases.
This case for women’s equality is nothing new and has been made, almost ad nauseum, for decades. What is so disturbing is that no matter what is said, no matter what is shown, no matter how convincing the argument seems to be, the status of women worldwide remains untouched. This is not a concern uniquely placed onto the shoulders of developing countries; even the wealthiest and most educated countries have failed to protect women to the extent possible. Whether cultural relativism provides a facile argument for oppressive male leaders, an argument that will not often be challenged for fear of appearing politically incorrect, or the collective global political will has simply not caught up with the times and the facts, women are still caught in an ongoing struggle against their oppression.
Nothing symbolizes the unequal power dynamics of the genders more than the very manifestation of oppression and power: rape and sexual violence against women. A new study conducted by South Africa’s Medical Research Council provides a striking and horrifying case study of sexual violence within a population.
This was a study of 1,738 men in Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces in South Africa; they were men of all racial groups from both rural and urban areas. The shocking findings were that one in four men said they had raped someone; nearly half admitted to more than one attack. The first assault was before the age of 20 for 73% of the respondents. One in 20 men surveyed said that they had raped a woman or girl in the past year. Gang rape is reportedly common; it is seen as a form of male bonding.
South Africa has one of the highest numbers of reported rapes in the world; a child is being raped in South Africa every three minutes, though the vast majority of the cases go unreported.
Rape is a manifestation of a need for power more than it is of sexual desire; it makes sense that men who may feel powerless in an economy that does not provide enough opportunities for them to support themselves or their families or in a political system that stifles their voices and prevents them from living lives of dignity may be more prone to unleashing their frustrations on the even less powerful women around them. Providing more economic opportunities and offering men a voice could potentially be an avenue for improvement that could help spare women in an indirect way. But will women really have to wait until the male condition is improved before they are free of the risk of being raped and abused?
Projects that make an economy more sustainable and governance more efficient are great, but are at their core a generic response. A country that is in a state of transition or development can be a country that can rewrite not only its formal laws, but also its cultural mores and social priorities. For reasons that have been presented countless times, women’s equality falls just short of being a silver bullet for the ills that ail, especially in countries that are already struggling; falling just short is a lot better than what we currently have up our sleeves.
Giving men power in healthy ways can help in protecting women from becoming the countless victims of frustrations and can even help those countries that are developing their economies and governance structures. However, taking away some of the “reasons” for the high rates of rape by enabling and empowering men is not doing much for women. Their safety and sexual choices will forever be at the whims of the men around them if development does not have a gendered approach. Poverty affects men and women differently; development projects can be successful if and when those differences are evaluated and considered during the course of implementation. Women in developing countries are often not necessarily the heads of household, but are certainly the caretakers of the family. Enabling women to make a living that does not involve begging or prostitution, sustainable and safe work that can pay for their children’s education, birth control methods and put food on the table is a step towards empowerment. Education opportunities that allow women to know their rights and defend them when necessary and health care systems that ensure safe pregnancies and deliveries while providing everyday preventative care lead to empowerment.
Every aspect of development must be seen through the double lens of gender; what can be done for education so that it is the best it can be for both girls and boys? What can be done within the health care system so both men and women are protected and offered the care and information they need? How can governance systems adequately represent both men and women’s interests while advancing the development of the country as a whole?
Gendered development cannot be the side note or the supplementary report to umbrella development projects. The development of men and the development of women can happen simultaneously and in a parallel fashion, in hopes that this empowerment of both will meet at some point in a future egalitarian and human rights observant state. Developing countries have their struggles and their challenges to achieving success and stability; there is also a blank slate intrinsic to the development process that could change the future of the populations, and most importantly, of its women. Development can never guarantee the end of sexual violence, but the empowerment that comes with gendered development will do wonders to decrease its frequency.