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Feminine Poverty

Elevating the dignity of women is not a new idea. But because men have too often been identified as the problem, the gender war has never been fully resolved.  

Emebet lives with her older sister, mother, and grandmother in a dirt home in a slum without running water or electricity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her family without a source of income or a way to pay for her education. One of her closest playmates is HIV-positive. At 5 years old, Emebet’s future is fairly bleak.

But for the grace of God….

I met Emebet last year when I filmed a piece about the local church in Addis Ababa that works with the charity group, Covenant Mercies, to help children like Emebet to get the nutritional, medical, and educational help they need. She charmed us all as she twirled, danced and giggled. In particular, she stole my heart. Immediately, I asked if she could be enrolled and if I could sponsor her. When I returned to Addis Ababa on another film project, I came with a bag of gifts for Emebet and her family. I was relieved to see her flourishing — with healthier skin and hair and cleaner clothes. Her family looked better, too, and received us with gracious hospitality.

This year, we filmed a scene at Emebet’s house so I had to have everyone sign a release giving permission to use their images in the documentary. Emebet’s grandmother listened diligently to the interpreter and then inked her finger with my pen to put her fingerprint on the signature line. It was an awkward moment that underscored the importance of Emebet’s future education. Without literacy, Emebet and her sister may not be able to break the family’s cycle of poverty.

In fact, Emebet and her sister are emblematic of the 21st-century anti-poverty focus. Right before I left for my Africa film trip in September, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a special edition dedicated to the cause of women’s rights. The lead article was an excerpt from a new book that argues that focusing anti-poverty efforts for the benefits of women and girls may break the relentless grip of economic despair in developing countries. The authors, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times correspondent who now works in finance and philanthropy, wrote:

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….

Why do microfinance organizations usually focus their assistance on women? And why does everyone benefit when women enter the work force and bring home regular pay checks? One reason involves the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men. Surprisingly frequently, we’ve come across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net; the mother says that the family couldn’t afford a bed net and she means it, but then we find the father at a nearby bar. He goes three evenings a week to the bar, spending $5 each week.

Our interviews and perusal of the data available suggest that the poorest families in the world spend approximately 10 times as much (20 percent of their incomes on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children (2 percent). If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries. Girls, since they are the ones kept home from school now, would be the biggest beneficiaries. Moreover, one way to reallocate family expenditures in this way is to put more money in the hands of women. A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier.

Kristof and WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, has only been out a matter of months but it has already garnered heavy accolades and massive sales. It is a remarkable book that excels in narrative illustrations, introducing the reader to resilient women in numerous developing nations and the social entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their lives.

Their arguments for feminine education and microfinance opportunities as the engines that will grow the economies of developing nations is a persuasive one. They have in their cross-hairs the massive aid programs that only address immediate needs and don’t offer long-term solutions — and rightly so, for these structures often keep impoverished people dependent. The authors work hard to adopt a non-partisan perspective, engaging the perspectives of both liberals and conservatives — though their anti-Bush sentiment is very clear — and commending the role of church groups and missionaries in rural areas where secular aid groups are often missing.

I was also glad to see the authors did not shy away from naming abortion’s role in sex-selection:

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. “More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for “missing women” of between 60 million and 107 million.

Girls vanish partly because they don’t get the same health care and food as boys. In India, for example, girls are less likely to be vaccinated than boys and are taken to the hospital only when they are sicker. A result is that girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys their age. In addition, ultrasound machines have allowed a pregnant woman to find out the sex of her fetus — and then get an abortion if it is female.

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.

What Half the Sky documents is a shocking, scandalous collection of data about the abuse and neglect of women around the world. As Christians, we cannot stand for the degradation of those who are made in the image of God.

Fortunately, we have a history of intervention. A spotty, uneven, and at times, hypocritical, history of intervention, to be sure, but the grace of God can be identified through the efforts of many Christians throughout history. Though educating women may be reaching the attention of mainstream media now, I can point to the letters of my missionary ancestors in the 19th century who risked their own lives and comfort to sail to India to plant churches and teach impoverished Hindu widows how to read — thereby giving them an alternative to suttee, the practice of immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres — despite the many complaints and threats from village elders. Elevating the dignity of women is not a new idea among missionary groups.

However, whatever progress has been made to date seems fleeting when measured against current conditions. I certainly champion those who are making the cause of neglected, abused, and ill-equipped women a central concern in anti-poverty programs. Where the equality of men and women made in the image of God is not clearly evidenced in a culture, we must labor to bring correction. This is where the Bible begins, and this is where we must begin as we preach the gospel.

But having researched the history of feminism in the Western world for my own book, Radical Womanhood, I am also reminded of the course of women’s history in our own culture. In many ways, though perhaps not as extreme, we issued the same complaints. Women in the 19th century complained of men making the same poor financial expenditures on alcohol and prostitutes, that women didn’t have equality in education, and that maternal health was a neglected medical priority.

But as women fought for equality, we found the fight remained long after the battles were won. Because men were identified as the problem, the gender war has never been fully resolved. Instead of unifying marriages and families, this ongoing battle continues to fracture them. We’ve been blame-shifting to fellow sinners, rather than seeing sin itself as the real culprit. So my concern is that we will import some of these same values into our efforts to help women around the world.

In fact, the opening illustration of Kristof and WuDunn’s article in my opinion illustrates this perfectly. It is about a Pakistani couple where the husband is sinning terribly against his wife by beating her and otherwise neglecting her. She is in despair until she receives a microfinance loan, which enables her to set up a small embroidery business. Soon she is the village business mogul, able to employ many others and pay off her husband’s debts. He no longer beats her because she is too valuable, and he has come around to the view that girls are just as good as boys.

And that’s where the story ends. Yay … but only half a yay, really. He stopped beating her, but where is the true partnership? Where is the true repentance?

Only the gospel can address sin and redemption. Economic parity can’t be the ultimate solution because it can’t address the heart issues. And this brings me back to why I think Christians need to be involved. If we preach equality because it’s found on page one of the Bible, then we should be leading the charge in this area. But our solutions will be different because our end goals are different. Yes, we want to empower women. Yes, we want women to be educated. Yes, we want families to be healthier and more prosperous. But we don’t want to do this by lifting up one person in the family at the expense of another.

We have to help men change, too, by preaching the gospel and teaching them to truly apply the Ephesians 5 mandate to love their wives as Christ loved the church — without concern for cultural practices or traditions. They must fear God and His word more than the opinions of other men and the way things are currently done in their culture.

As Christians, we have an opportunity here to help families around the world by both standing against incredible injustice against women and by preaching the gospel of reconciliation to both men and women. Let’s not lose any ground to lesser solutions.

My hope for Emebet and the other girls I met in Uganda, Zambia, and Ethiopia is that they will gain the education they need to be able to make a difference in their cultures and even to support their families one day, if needed. I met them because they were all in a program that supports fatherless or orphaned children. In general, their mothers lack the skills needed to financially support their families. But even if they could provide for their families, they would still need someone to care for their children — two pressing priorities. It is not possible for a single parent to both watch her children and make money at the same time.

I hope Emebet and her sister will not be single parents, but will use the education and training they’ve received to be flourishing wives and marriage partners who are blessings to their husbands, skilled contributors to the family income when necessary, and wise mentors to the next generation — just like the woman of noble character commended in Proverbs 31. Until that time, I count it a privilege to pray for them and to contribute to their education and welfare.

And I pray that many, many more of us with access to additional money and education will respond to this global inequity by investing in the lives of oppressed women in other places for the glory of God.

Copyright 2009 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved. Internati

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About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker and filmmaker at Citygate Films. Her most recent book is “The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.” She is a member of Redeemer Church of Arlington and is the proud aunt of six nieces and nephews.


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