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.
A series, compiling all of the responses published on RH Reality Check, will be published on Friday, September 11th.
Edwin Okong’o is a
writer and associate editor at New America Media.
On Aug. 23, I got to read the much-anticipated New York
Times Magazine issue dedicated to women of the developing world.
The lead story, “The Women’s Crusade” by Nicholas D. Kristof
and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, set the tone for the issue. And it portrayed an
Africa that I hardly recognize. It also calls for a response.
Before I critique what they wrote, let me make one thing
clear: I have deep respect for the couple. In 1990, Kristof and WuDunn became the first couple to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square. In his career, Kristof has gone where few
journalists would dare go. His continuous commentary from Darfur exposed the
Sudanese government’s atrocities against civilians and earned him another
Pulitzer in 2006.
Kristof’s travel resume is unrivaled. According to his bio
on the NYT’s Web site, he “has lived on four continents, reported on six, and
traveled to more than 140 countries, plus all 50 [U.S.] states, every Chinese
province and every main Japanese island.”
But reading “The Women’s Crusade” made me feel like I was
reading a tale from the 19th Century. The authors declare correctly that this
century should be about tackling “the brutality inflicted on so many women and
girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass
rape.” However, the story portrays the developing world as a backward frontier
full of rapists, wife beaters, sex traffickers and “bride burners.” If I hadn’t
grown up in Kenya, one of the places Kristof and WuDunn wrote about, it would
have been hard for me to imagine the existence of even a single good man in the
The men of Ivory Coast spend their "money on alcohol
and tobacco.” Pakistanis abandon wives who don’t bear sons. Indians burn brides
to “punish a woman for an inadequate dowry.” Chinese men kidnap women and
condemn them to sexual slavery in brothels. And all the poor people of the
developing world have one thing in common: They spend heavily on a “combination
of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts” instead of
spending on the education of their children. (That can be said about a lot of
places in the United States, but I’ll leave that for another day).
In the article, Kristof and WuDunn exhibit the kind of
condescension we Africans often see in Western journalists, even those who have
spent so many years abroad. I believe that most of them mean well and sincerely
want to see an end to the atrocities they expose. But their overwhelming focus
on the developing world’s hot enclaves undermines their goodwill and skews
Placing a blanket misogynist label on men from the Third
World, for example, damages Kristof’s and WuDunn’s credibility by making people
in the developing world ask whether the journalists really understand the
places they cover. (When I asked a Kenyan man last year to give me an example
of a foreign journalist who had gotten a story wrong, he said, “Nicholas
Kristof of the New York Times.” The man said he believed Kristof had been
malicious, not negligent.)
This distrust is further aggravated by Western journalist’s
reluctance to seek the expertise of local people. A common complaint of people
of the developing world is that they only appear in Western stories as subjects
– either as poor, hopeless victims, or as savage creatures in need of the
West’s moral intervention. They are never considered vital ingredients of the
Kristof and WuDunn, for instance, almost exclusively tap
experts from the West: Michael Kremer and Erica Field of Harvard; Esther Duflo
of M.I.T.; William Easterly, New York University; Dr. Lewis Wall, the Worldwide
Fistula Fund; Michael Horowitz, conservative agitator on humanitarian issues;
the activist Jo Luck, Heifer Foundation; Larry Summers, Bill Gates, the World
Bank, the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
We, the people of the developing world, complain about
unfair and inaccurate reporting by Western journalists because we know how
differently stories might have turned if they had consulted the experts among
us. An African expert might have told Kristof and WuDunn that the continent is
full of men who care deeply about the education of girls and women’s rights in
Men in the developing world do not deny there exist serious
violations of women’s rights. Many of us have seen injustices committed against
our mothers, sisters and other women we love. We have lived with men who spend
lavishly while their children languish in poverty.
But we also know men who protect their mothers and educate
their sisters and daughters. To pile such men with rapists, misogynists and
wife beaters is outright offensive and counterproductive.
Just like the movements to end slavery and segregation in
the American South couldn’t have been successful without white people, the
fight for women’s rights will not be won without enlisting men from the
cultures where abusing women is rampant.
Kristof and WuDunn highlight that “foreign aid is
increasingly directed to women.” While this is cause for celebration, the
authors ignore the fact that aid doesn’t often get to the poor men. We can
spend 10 times the billions of dollars the authors proposed to empower all the
women of the world, but those efforts will be in vain if we do not empower men.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the empowerment of men is the fact that even
in the developed world men who are in debt, unemployed and unable to provide
for their families often turn their shame into violence against their wives and
Educating men is also just as important as “the women’s
crusade.” While it is true that in
the developing world men dominate educational institutions and workplaces, they
lack education on the important role women can play in creating a prosperous
society. More resources need to be invested in teaching boys and young men to
break the cycle of violence against women.
One thing I have found more effective is encouraging young
men to think about their mothers and sisters. You should see their faces when I
ask them how they would feel if someone abused their little sister, or if the
woman being abused by her in-laws was their mother.
Three years ago, a young man my sister had been dating came
to tell me that he intended to marry her. Normally he would have gone to my
father but since the old man had passed away, I assumed the role of father to
my siblings. To an outsider, the customary act of my sister’s husband-to-be
seeking my approval might seem misogynistic. But I had told my sister that –
like most women of my 2-million-strong Gusii tribe – she did not need any man’s
permission to marry a man she loves.
I also told her future husband that I did not want a dowry
for my sister. All I asked was that he be kind, loving and respectful to her. I
added that our family would not be ashamed to have my sister come home if she
I know a lot of African men who share my views. For example,
at a recent convention of Kenyan Americans held in Boston, the issue of women’s
education and rights was at center stage. I have gone to convention after
convention of Africans in the United States, both as a journalist and a
participant. In every one of them issues of empowering women have been
discussed. And in every one of them, I rarely see an American journalist.
Kristof, WuDunn and many Western journalists have done women
great service by bringing attention to the important issue of women’s rights.
But the absence of Western journalists from the conversations around this issue
makes them rush to condemning every man from the developing world as an
oppressor of women.