How to really help Africa/International Women’s Day-after

Our friend Joseph Kony totally overshadowed International Women’s Day yesterday — which is a horrible thing to do, add that one to the list. Also, a lot of people criticised me for being too negative about Kony because I was “trying to stop people to take action”. But more on that later. Anyway, I thought I would post a few items that would have been relevant yesterday while also making a few positive suggestions of campaigns that would help Africans more than wearing a Kony armband.

1. The “Girl Affect”

The crux of this is described in the following moving infographic:

Or much more eloquently by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times Magazine article:

The Women’s Crusade –

if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. “Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos. There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

And it can be found on Facebook.

2. Holding Islamists to account

The downside to that Kristof piece was this:

Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country’s population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room. That’s in part why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and international security specialists are puzzling over how to increase girls’ education in countries like Afghanistan — and why generals have gotten briefings from Greg Mortenson, who wrote about building girls’ schools in his best seller, “Three Cups of Tea.” Indeed, some scholars say they believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.

This almost certainly confuses cause and effect. The “Islamic teachings about infidels or violence” are, by and large, the reason behind the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force. I particularly dislike calling these teachings “Islamic”; they are not Islamic, they are Islamist. I have spoken to plenty of Muslims who have explained to me in detail why there is nothing Islamic whatsoever about not educating women and slaying the infidels.

Moreover, the denial of Islamist discrimination is an example of a third-worldist well-meaning condescension. This leads to the kind of situation described yesterday by Isobel Coleman, Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations:

Why the Arab Spring Hasn’t Been Better for Women – Isobel Coleman – International – The Atlantic.

One theme is that women played an essential role in the Arab world’s uprisings, only to be marginalized once transitions began. Moushira Khattab, a former Egyptian ambassador to South Africa and minister of family and population, writes that women joined men in calling for freedom in Tahrir Square. Since then, though, “the train of change has not only left them behind, but has in fact turned against them…

Dormant conservative value systems are being manipulated by a religious discourse that denies women their rights.” Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist, says flatly that “the ‘Arab Spring’ is not an accurate description” of what has occurred. She notes that after Iran’s revolution, “a dictator fell from power, but a religious tyranny took the place of democracy.” The uprisings will only be fulfilled, she argues, “when women achieve their rights.” For many, the rise of traditional and religious-based politics is deeply harmful to women. Rola Dashti, a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament who lost her seat in the election last month (in which Islamists surged and no women were elected), says that “women’s presence and participation in public life–specifically in politics, decision-making positions, and state affairs–moved from marginalization during repressive regimes to rejection with Islamist regimes.” She pulls no punches when it comes to moderate Islamists: “the promotion of moderate Islamism by Islamists in power is nothing more than a hidden agenda of radical and extremist ideologies when it comes to social issues and citizens’ rights, especially as it concerns women.” Rend Al-Rahim, who served as the first ambassador to the United States in Iraq’s post-Saddam government and now runs the Iraq Foundation, says that “the retreat in women’s rights has more to do with the resurgence of patriarchal, narrowly conservative social mores embedded in ancient tribal customs than with religion. Sharia is only a convenient peg for the deeper instinct of male dominance.”

I’ll also throw these two videos in while we’re at it:

3. Mentorship

A little less international relations focussed for a second (well not really, but anyway), some interesting ideas came to light in this post on the Council on Foreign Relations site:

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action » Ask the Experts: Where Are the Women in Foreign Policy?.

There’s a gap in the types of tasks women and men are assigned early in their careers. Intentionally or not, women tend to given more administrative or support work rather than policy or research work; path dependence takes over from there. I recall a prominent scholar regularly asking his female research assistant (RA) to pick up his dry cleaning and take his car to the shop—things he didn’t ask of male RAs.

There’s also a mentorship gap. Young women have trouble finding men willing to act in that capacity because there are few mechanisms to develop the rapport that underlies a good, productive mentoring relationship.  Conversely, men may be concerned about how a mentoring relationship will be perceived and shy away as a result. But mentors are vital for opening doors and offering suggestions and feedback about career choices—efforts that are particularly valuable in the foreign policy world.


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  1. #1 by Ahmad Helwig on March 10, 2012 - 5:31 am

    I love your writing style truly enjoying this site.

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