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First Good Reason: Reducing Poverty and Hostility

I now turn to the “first good reason” to empower women economically: reducing poverty and hostility. Let’s begin with the top 25 nations with the highest fertility rates, according to the CIA Factbook. If you look over this list, you will see, first of all, that they are all poor nations and, second, that they are places wracked with conflict. These also are all places where, as a practical matter, women have very few rights.

In the past, we have tended to view the relationship between poverty and conflict more or less as follows: Poverty and high fertility go together. There is no particular reason why this should be true, except insofar as birth control is made too expensive. But the common wisdom for centuries has run something like “the rich get richer and the poor have children”–or, put an equally silly way, that “poverty makes you pregnant.” Too many poor people put pressure on resources. This leads to disease as people huddle together in cramped quarters, can’t keep clean, and so on. This collective misery creates hostility, which leads to conflict, either within the group or between competing groups. Somehow, gender inequality comes out of this. Some argue that people who are living under extreme pressure need more gender inequality to survive.  I see no reason why that should be true.  (It reminds me of David Attenborough saying on BBC that the violence male baboons visit on females is “necessary” for maintaining order–whose order is that?).

If, on the other hand, we begin with the fact that these nations have low gender equality, which means, first and foremost that the females have no sexual sovereignty, then we can much more easily explain why there is high fertility. Populations with high birth rates have a pyramid shaped age distribution, such that there are always more young men than there are older men. As it turns out, the ratio of older to young men is predictive of the level of hostility and conflict in a population. Basically, the presence of older men has a dampening effect on younger hotheads. Without that calming presence, the young men will find a reason to fight. If you have a stable fertility rate, however, the population will always be balanced–and thus conflict will be less.

To illustrate the potential for change by empowering women, I show the text of an email I got about two years ago from a woman working for equality in the coffee industry within DR Congo:

I am involved in activities against women discrimination and support women economic empowerment since I was very young, in 1999. Thus, we found that women who grow coffee with their husbands do not have access to income generate after harvest. The coffee harvest is an occasion for men to drink alcohol and to marry several women as they have money. And during this time, women are beaten and driven from their homes with their children without anything. Apart from that, during periods of fields maintenance, they are often victims of rape by armed militias, the military but also unpatriotic persons. 
This constitutes a serious violation of the dignity of women and discrimination by their men and society as a whole.

You can see here that the conditions of conflict and the vulnerability of the women feeds the vicious cycle. The women are under constant sexual pressure and have no way to push back.  The fertility thus continues to rise.  The children can’t be cared for. And so on.  If you could empower the women, especially to harvest the coffee and get the income from it, the children could be fed and cared for.  But in order to make any of this happen, the women first have to have sexual sovereignty. This is why women’s economic empowerment can’t be achieved without confronting the violence.  Some people have a hard time seeing that.

Anyway, you can appreciate, then, why we might develop a different theory of poverty. In this, you start with the gender inequality (the rape, the lack of birth control, the need to engage in prostitution because women can’t earn money).  The gender inequality leads to high fertility.  In turn, this causes conflict.  Resource degradation always results from open conflict and also leads to disease (because resources can’t be marshaled to control it, because people are weaker). And then you have the kind of runaway situation that spirals into poverty.

The  inference is that if you can help these women get rights over their bodies and control over some money, everything will calm down.  Lots of statistics show that if women have money, they will spend it first to care for their children and next to build communities.  And their fertility will drop if they have access to birth control and the right to say no.  So the scenario is a gradual reduction in fertility, conflict, poverty, and disease.

All the “Three Good Reasons” posts can also be accessed here, along with the introduction:


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