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Unfinished Business: Sex Equality on the Global Agenda
Part Two of a Two-Part Series


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

As we argued in Part I of this series of columns, gender still matters. There remains a persistent gap between ideals of sex equality and equal citizenship, and the reality of many women's lives. In the first part of the series, we considered the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court and the White House's creation of a Council on Women and Girls as illustrative of the persistent forms of gender inequality and some of the steps necessary to address them. In this part of this series, we consider contemporary challenges to women's equality in a more global context.

A Word on "Citizenship"

The notion of "citizenship" can be used narrowly, to describe one's formal status in a country, or more broadly, as a measure of inclusion in society. When we speak of women's equal citizenship, we mean the aspiration towards equal rights and responsibilities, benefits, duties, and obligations that members of society expect to share. Our recent co-edited book, Gender Equality: Dimensions of Women's Equal Citizenship (Cambridge 2009), explores women's equal rights and responsibilities and participation in several dimensions of citizenship: constitutional citizenship (the role constitutions play in fostering equal citizenship through anti-discrimination guarantees), democratic citizenship (women's active participation in political deliberation and self-government), social citizenship (access to the means of economic security, such as paid work), sexual and reproductive citizenship (effective protection for reproductive rights, sexual freedom, and the right to form a family), and global citizenship (gender equality in human rights norms and international law, and globalization's impact on women).

These dimensions of citizenship provide a framework that enables us to draw a nuanced picture of how well women fare against a standard that calls for equal status and equal participation in society. Our contributors consider a wide range of gender issues, from the Supreme Court's inattention to issues of women's equal citizenship and the gendered dimensions of the immigration and naturalization laws, to women's stake in stem cell research and infertility as a social justice issue, to how women in various countries enlist human rights norms to secure their equal citizenship.

Women's Global Citizenship: Equality and Human Rights Around the Globe

Global citizenship is an increasingly relevant dimension of citizenship in an era of globalization. As we argue in the introduction to Gender Equality, there are many different understandings of this type of citizenship. One is an aspiration to norms of equality across nations, along with an obligation of nation-states to foster such equality by incorporating equality norms embodied in international human rights treaties and international law into domestic law, and living up to such norms in their treatment of women. Human rights norms that embody gender equality components can become a resource upon which women's groups draw in their demands for equal citizenship under domestic law in such areas as reproductive freedom and protection against domestic violence.

A recent special issue of the New York Times Magazine drew attention to the persistence of gender discrimination in many spheres of women's lives around the world. Journalist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who works in finance and philanthropy, set out to show, through vivid examples of inequality and suffering, "Why Women's Rights are the Cause of Our Time."

Along with other stories in the Magazine, the cover story chronicled barriers girls face as they seek education, and cited household inequality, violence, and slavery (including sex trafficking) as among the numerous pieces of evidence of persistent sex inequality around the globe, and of the pressing need to make women's rights a "cause" and a "moral challenge" for this century.

Kristof and WuDunn also repeat Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen's earlier conclusion that 100 million women are missing around the world because of gender discrimination, through such practices as sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and unequal provision to girls of nutrition, health care, and the like. They coin the provocative term "gendercide" to capture the human cost of sex inequality.

Hillary Clinton and the "New Gender Agenda"

In an interview in the Magazine, entitled, "A New Gender Agenda," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted: "I happen to believe that the transformation of women's roles is the last great impediment to universal progress . . . .[I]n too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people's full potential." Clinton here draws on a conception of equal citizenship invoked by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a landmark sex equality case, U.S. v. Virginia, in 1993, where she wrote that "neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature – equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities." The obstacles to women's ability to realize their full potential around the globe impede their equal citizenship.

As First Lady, and then as a Senator, Clinton had spoken out frequently for women's rights as a global issue. Now, as Secretary of State, she has highlighted issues of sex inequality in her travels, such as mass rape, poor maternal health, high rates of maternal and infant mortality, and AIDS. In the interview, she confirms that the Obama Administration is "having as a signature issue the fact that women and girls are a core factor in the foreign policy." This complements the establishment of the White House Council on Women and Girls (described in Part I of this series), which President Obama stated is meant to "ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy." This dual focus on sex equality at home and abroad provides a propitious moment to address – and fight to remedy – women's unequal citizenship.

The Importance of Women's Global Economic Empowerment

Much of the emphasis in the special issue of theNew York Times Magazine is on women's education and economic empowerment as the lever that can bring about a dramatic improvement in women's status in the home and in the broader community. On education, Kristof and WuDunn quote Larry Summers, from the time of his tenure as an economist at the World Bank: "Investment in girls' education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world." They stress microenterprise, microfinance, and helping women start small businesses, as key components in helping women globally achieve economic self-sufficiency that underlies both social and democratic (as well as other forms of) citizenship. Indeed, Kristof and WuDunn tell several dramatic stories of how education and microenterprise transformed several women's and girls lives from ones of subordination to – and violence at the hands of – husbands, or of literal sexual slavery, into ones of greater power in the household, an opening of economic and professional opportunities, and greater respect in communities.

An important message throughout the Magazine is that investing in women not only is an important avenue to eradicating their unequal status in society, but is also a sound anti-poverty strategy, one that makes economic sense. Here, the authors echo the findings of the literature on gender and development that, in households, women, more than men, tend to spend money on nutrition, medicine, and housing. Empowering women, a prior UNICEF report concluded, promises a double dividend: Gender equality helps women and children. Improving reproductive health care, or what we would describe as sexual and reproductive citizenship, is also a vital component of the proposed new gender agenda.

Another argument made in the special issue of the Magazine is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. In other words, male domination of society may be a risk factor for an unstable society. This makes women's equal citizenship, as Secretary Clinton suggests, an important tenet of foreign policy.

Despite Caveats, Women's Rights Is Indeed the Cause of Our Time

Of course, there are reasons to be cautious about a campaign of "saving the world's women." Women's equal status in society is a matter of basic justice, whatever its economic advantages to families, communities, or nations. Moreover, while Kristof and WuDunn's narratives about the transformation of particular women's lives through economic empowerment are moving and inspiring, they also point to the many structural barriers to full equality, which empowering individual women does not address.

It is chilling, for example, that a mother-in-law opines that a husband – generally -- has a right to beat a wife who "does not know her limits," but that now it is "difficult" for her son to discipline his wife because she earns more than he does. As in the United States, in which rates of domestic violence are still staggeringly high, gender justice requires ending such "rules" about household life and ending any legal immunity for such violence. A look at the different dimensions of equal citizenship suggests the need to focus not only on economic empowerment but also on other aspects of full participation in society, such as political participation; equal rights and responsibilities in matters of sexuality, family, and reproduction; and freedom from violence.

There are other caveats, too, about a campaign framed as one of "saving the world's women." Feminist scholars like Deborah Weissman have warned about the risks of using women's rights and the goal of saving women in foreign countries as a rationale for military intervention, particularly where the appeal to women's rights is disingenuous and may mask other military objectives. Moreover, the ongoing debate about whether a commitment to multiculturalism is in tension with a commitment to sex equality cautions us about the risk of seeing sex inequality abroad, while at the same time ignoring it at home. That debate also urges caution about categorical statements about culture as the cause of sex inequality – statements that ignore that culture is often in flux, and that women struggle to transform cultural practices. Finally, the focus on women and girls in poor and war-torn countries, while vitally important, should not obscure the very real injuries suffered and problems experienced by men and boys.

Caveats aside, however, we believe that there is much to embrace in the assertion that "women's rights are the cause of our time." President Obama's commitment to address the status of women and girls both here and abroad is an essential aspect of our democratic ideals.

Joanna Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is a professor of law at Hofstra University. Her columns on family law, trusts and estates, and discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment, may be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

Linda McClain, who has been a prior guest columnist for FindLaw, is a professor of law and Paul M. Siskind Research Scholar at Boston University. She discusses sex equality and family law issues in The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility (Harvard University Press, 2006). Portions of this column are adapted from Gender Equality: Dimensions of Women's Equal Citizenship (Cambridge 2009).

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