Women Need Rights, Not Rescue

The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development.  In the coming weeks, RH Reality Check will feature commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad.

This article was co-authored by Yifat Susskind and Diana Duarte of Madre.

With a tagline like “Saving the World’s Women,” we knew to be suspicious of the recent New York Times Magazine cover story on global women’s rights.  Reading on, our suspicions were confirmed.

Women’s rights here are portrayed as a “cause” that seemingly came into vogue only in the 21st century and only once its turn came up after slavery and totalitarianism. 

In the introduction to their article, Kristof and WuDunn write:

In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery.  In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism.  In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.

As if the conditions women face worldwide – such as unequal access to education, denial of health care, violence and discrimination – have been immaterial or at least secondary concerns up until this point.  As if the lives of women, or roughly half of humanity, are simply the latest cause célèbre.

When we lose sight of history, we erase the existences of women who fought for their rights over generations, and we forget to seek out the root causes of our current reality.  Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of women facing catastrophic circumstances, but with little thought to the forces that created such circumstances.  Why do women suffer abuse, poverty and discrimination?  Because, we are meant to understand, the culture “over there” has always thus sentenced them.

The solution, according to Kristof and WuDunn?  A new aid agenda that targets women and girls.  Surely, more resources in the hands of women who have been historically underserved would be a welcome change.  But an agenda truly in support of women’s rights would cut across all US policies.

In Afghanistan, it would mitigate against troop surges that risk women’s lives by bombing homes and neighborhoods and strengthening the hand of anti-occupation fundamentalist groups.  It would put an end to the common practice of propping up warlords whose miserable record on women’s rights is conveniently disregarded, so long as they serve as useful political allies.

A women’s rights agenda in US policy would eliminate regulations in US aid, like the Helms Amendment, that limit women’s access to abortion and other basic reproductive rights.  It would ensure that women farmers responsible for the vast majority of small-scale agriculture around the world are supported and not sold-out to corporate agribusiness.  It would pave the way for the US to ratify the international women’s human rights treaty CEDAW, without harmful reservations.

The reality is that US policy has often stood in the way of women’s rights worldwide, throwing up obstacles to women organizing to protect their communities and lives. Yet, Kristof and WuDunn cautiously avoid any critique of US foreign policy in discussing the atrocious conditions of life that so many women face. 

They also lavish so much attention on international organizations that are out there “saving women,” that Kristof and WuDunn wind up reproducing the invisibility of the millions of courageous, creative, and undefeated women who are out there helping themselves.

Those are the women MADRE works with all the time. Like the women of Umoja, Kenya, who founded a women-led village and declared it a violence-against-women-free-zone. Or our sisters at the Barcenas Maquila Workers’ Committee in Guatemala, who are fighting for their rights as sweatshop workers and as women. Think about the unbelievable bravery of our partners in Afghanistan, who are facing down US air strikes and Taliban death threats to demand peace and basic rights for themselves as women.

MADRE partners with women who are organizing in their communities precisely because they are already hard at work doing what needs to be done. Why replicate their efforts when these women have a firsthand, lifelong understanding of the needs of their communities?

We’ve seen how international NGOs often wind up undermining local women’s organizations. It’s not their intent, but they fly in to someplace, open up an office for a year or two, suck out the best staff people from local organizations, and distort the local economy with their fistfuls of dollars. We’ve even seen local organizations collapse after international NGO’s closed up shop once news headlines and foundation dollars drifted elsewhere.

The women we work with may not be "experts" on gender oppression like Nicholas Kristof, but they are experts on the conditions of their own lives. They know what they need to guarantee survival for themselves and their families and what they need to do to improve things for the long-term. So there’s no need to airdrop women’s rights programs into poor and embattled communities. It makes a lot more sense to team up with the women who are already doing that work and provide the resources and training that they say is useful to effect the change they need.

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  • ewestley

    Yifat – I think several of your points are excellent, but I also think you get this way wrong. In my personal experience as a resident of New York who has conversations with people outside of the reproductive rights field on a frequent basis, I believe that Kristof’s reporting in the New York Times has made a huge impact on overall awareness of important issues facing poor women. I can’t tell you how many times ordinary people – neighbors, moms in the playground – have started conversations with me about fistula, maternal mortality, health systems failures, sex trafficking – prompted by reading Kristof’s column. I think he has done our field at large a tremendous favor and brought valuable attention to these important issues.
    Yes, we may use different language. We may prefer not to use the words "rescue" or "save." We may wish that women’s issues were tackled more effectively in the 20th, or preferably the 19th, centuries. But I believe that this work must be our priority in the 21st century. And we need journalists who can write thoughtful stories that make people cry, think, and discuss – someone who writes in the Times but is also featured in Glamour and Oprah. I believe we owe Kristof and WuDunn our heartfelt thanks, and I personally intend to buy the book and support them.
    Thanks for the chance to participate in the dialogue!
    Elizabeth Westley
    Coordinator, International Consortium for Emergency Contraception

  • musicfairie

    As someone who is professionally and personally committed to working for women’s rights and promoting women’s health, I’ve always wondered why Kristoff’s columns leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. I usually can’t even get through them without losing focus — why? because women are the victim, the downtrodden … the same old story as always… in need of Western aid and attention. While I agree that Kristoff has illuminated the plight of women around the world for the average reader, the way he portrays women reinforces their powerlessness. He writes about them… and so they assume the passive position once more. Thanks for this analysis.

  • hthompson

    I think this blog is right-on! And I disagree with Elizabeth Westley about the role that folks like Kristof and WuDunn play. Their writing is reminiscent of the feminist scholarship that Chandra Mohanty so effectively critiqued in her 1986 essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.”

    That women in a playground can talk about “fistula, maternal mortality, health systems failures, sex trafficking” (Westley’s comment) does not mean that they have the knowledge about U.S. foreign policy and women’s lives that they would need to advocate for effective changes to U.S. foreign policy. Instead, if they are getting their information from Kristof or Oprah or many of the other mainstream liberal individuals and organizations that talk about helping women worldwide, they are likely to be swimming in feminist discourse that, as Mohanty argues, universalizes “Third World women,” rendering them as “politically immature,” “powerless,” and “dependent” victims who are necessarily distinct from the Western feminist scholar/mother/activist/columnist/politician who experiences a “latent self-preservation” in her position as not the Third World woman (Mohanty).

    This approach to thinking about women’s needs and women’s rights, as Yifat Susskind and Diana Duarte have argued, positions Americans as the necessary saviors of women in the global South (nevermind women in the global North) and allows for U.S. foreign policies that seek to ‘protect’ or ‘rescue’ women in the global South and that are unforgivably paternalistic. These policies–such as the Helms Amendment, the global gag rule, the abstinence-until-marriage funding set-aside, the prostitution pledge, etc.–do devastating harm, even when they are accompanied by an influx of U.S. dollars (which Susskind and Duarte also nicely critique).

    In addition, I think Susskind and Duarte make the very important (and too often overlooked) point that this Kristof-feminist approach ignores so many other critical issues of u.s. foreign policy and the global political economy.

  • yifatsusskind

    I agree with you, Elizabeth, that Kristof has helped raise awareness here in the US of some of the worst expressions of discrimination that women in poor countries routinely face. Like you, I’m glad the issues are being raised, but I’m not feeling particularly grateful that a journalist has figured out that the most widespread human rights violation in the world can be construed as news.


    As a writer, Kristof does more than inform readers about fistula, maternal mortality, health system failures, sex trafficking, etc. He also constructs his readers’ relationship to those issues and to the women who are enduring them. He does that with language, so, yes, it matters which words he chooses to deploy.


    For me, the issue’s tagline, "Saving the World’s Women," frames the whole discussion in a way that is counterproductive to defining and defending women’s rights. How are we supposed to combat gender discrimination with language that reproduces the tired notion that women are passive victims waiting to be rescued? The readers of the NYT Magazine are not saviors of the world’s women. What we can be is partners in advancing human rights for all people.

  • kirsten-sherk

    I agree with Yifat’s overall sentiment, if not her particular points. Elizabeth, it’s true that Kristoff has used his extraordinary pulpit to raise awareness about global women’s issues. It’s very easy to get caught up in the "he didn’t say it right" but the fact is that there are men and women around the country who are never going to read news from Planned Parenthood or Equality Now or even UNFPA. He has done a great job getting their attention. But to do that, he has also very carefully forged a path that avoids political brambles and pitfalls, and reinforced the notion of women as victims.


    Take abortion, for example (you know I would!): in Kristoff’s columns, women die in childbirth, and raped women who get pregnant decide to have the children of their rapists. But somehow in all his travels, women with unwanted pregnancies never have abortions. In fact, he’s written, unsafe abortion just isn’t that big a deal. Given his emphasis on effective solutions, you’d think he’d care about the most preventable cause of maternal mortality, as well as one cost-effective solution (hint: access to contraception, post-abortion care and safe abortion care!).


    Second, by focusing on women’s victimhood, Kristof and WuDunn   marginalize the women’s movement in general, and miss the underlying cause of the problems they identify: that women are not valued as full members of society, period. (In fact, in doing so they kind of emphasize this point.) It’s not just that they are victims of sexual violence. It’s not just that we could make our foreign aid more efficient. Isn’t being human and more than 50 percent of the population enough?


    I admit that, even before now, Kristof always leaves me very ambivalent (if one can be "very" ambivalent?). He shines a light on some important issues of our time – not just about trafficking, but he’s done some great pieces on health care reform, and factory farming. But at the same time, when it comes to women’s rights, I feel like he’s patting the advocates on the head who have been working for years. "Don’t worry, ladies – I’m here and I’ll tell you what needs to be done!"


  • angeline

    One major thing that has to be considered while talking about woman rights is the basic right to talk feely. Lots of women have high confidence level with good exposure. But when coming to job, women are not recognized as how men are. I wish women should be given equal rights to talk wise and let others know about their potential of dealing with work.

    Angeline @ marcus evans scam