Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Sociology Series: Part 1- Gender Inequality

The Payoff from Women's Rights

Based on the article by Isobel Coleman
Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 3 (May - Jun., 2004), pp. 80-95

Isobel Coleman, a Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations attributes many aspects of society wealth to women and their role in society. Reducing gender disparity is correlated to fighting poverty, economic progress and a generally better quality of life. While these are grand results from simply reducing gender disparity, Coleman  focuses mostly on the democratizing effect of educating women . In the article, increasing girls' and women's education lowers birth rates & infant mortality rates provides for better birth outcomes (higher birth weights)  and leads to better child nutrition. These are just some of the health benefits, while economic ones include more family-focused investments of household income , higher per capita income and even better outcomes from microfinance loans. Female education increases their civil liberties and Coleman assumes, would lead to other democratic reforms such as giving women a political voice as well as more control over economic resources. The current status of society in nations that have implemented policies to reduce gender disparity versus those that have not, is compared to show the differences. Turkey and Tunisia fall into the former category, boasting higher literacy rates for women, and women in positions of national political power. Nigeria, Indonesia, and some nations in the Middle East are not close to achieving either of the two progresses and encounter high tension whenever  the advancement of women is brought into question. Coleman states that "women are critical to development, good governance, and stable civil life" (82).

A key strength of this article, is that Coleman provides a full-circle illustration of the possible  positive outcomes of reducing gender disparity. The most obvious issues that come to mind on the subject of women's civil liberties is their political voice. While it is important that they voice their political opinions, it makes more sense to first educate women, so that they can voice well-thought, academically diverse opinions which may have a greater impact on improving their lives and those of their families. I believe that education is the foundation for a better quality of life, because the material factors that improve our lives all begin as ideas. Education serves many purposes, the two most important being; first stimulating the mind so that it is perpetually in a state of creation, and then exposing it to spheres of  information and experience which combine to build a knowledge base. Politicians of non-democratic governments who are in the position to create policies which increase women's education may be more concerned with the ignorant idea of repressing women so as maintain their stereotypical position as housewives and inferiors to men. Simultaneously, they may be facing the issue of rocketing birth rates without the economic resources to attend to a rising population. The correlation between supporting better primary education for women, and reducing birth rates in poverty-stricken parts of society, is not instantaneously obvious for many political leaders. The correlation however, at a large scale in India and other developing countries. A thought that comes to mind, is that education that affects the life cycle (birth rates, infant mortality rates etc) does not necessarily mean education focused on these subjects. For example, a women can be educated on the benefits of having fewer children, and make the same educated decision as a woman who simply attended secondary school. What I mean is, even the opportunity to be more educated in any area can be inspiring to a young woman,  who might otherwise find herself restricted to the role of caretaking. The first woman, who learned about the danger of having more children than she can care for may decide not to have more than two children, because her economic and emotional resources cannot allow it. The second woman, who may not have had the same lesson, but who graduated from primary school, may choose to have only two children, because she would like to continue on to secondary school as soon as the children begin attending school. In both cases, education has reduced the birth of children into homes where they may not have received adequate care. It is important to recognize this, because there are developing countries where there is a presence of reproductive education  that is not complemented by an even higher level of general education.

The conflict paradigm of sociology can be used to analyze the issue of gender disparity, because it associates social inequities with systemic flaws, rather than accepting them as part of society. The conflict theory focuses on the inequality of power in a society, which allows some to rise into dominant positions, and others to be dominated. When applied to gender disparity, it is revealed that the gender gap disallows women from even having the opportunity to escape the realm of those who are dominated. Lack of education, lack of control over economic resources, and repression of the female political opinion leaves women unequipped to compete with men for dominating positions. While dominance can be viewed in both positive and negative lights, there is no doubt that having women in dominant political and economic positions has more documented positive benefits over stereotypical chauvinist-engineered disadvantages.

This article has reminded me about the wealth of possibilities that women in developing can surpass and taught me about the rarely mentioned fortes of women in aspects such as money management. According to the article, Lawrence Summers, a former chief economist at the World Bank once stated that educating girls may be the investment that yields the highest returns in the developing world. Considering that women comprise a larger population than men in the world and in most societies, I agree with Summers, that focusing on this part of the population could manifest in tremendous ways globally.

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