This is a post that has nothing to do with elections of any kind. Consider yourselves warned.
Two (of three) of my classes have conspired this week to make all of my readings relate to the subject of HIV/AIDS in Africa as it connects to various aspects of Globalization. This particular pile includes Stephen Lewis’ 2005 Massey Lectures “Race Against Time“, the fourth part of which is called “Women: Half the World Barely Represented”. Instead of picking up the book itself, I’ve been listening to the recorded versions of the lectures as broadcast on CBC, and I think there’s some advantage to that, because Lewis is an incredibly passionate speaker and the sincerity of his anger and frustration comes through much more clearly in his own voice.
Though his assignment and main point of reference is HIV/AIDS in Africa, this lecture is about global gender inequality in its entirety and the incredible lack of attention paid to women’s needs by the international community, specifically the UN. In his analysis, despite the rhetoric of the UN statements, women are treated in one of two ways. First, through “gender mainstreaming”, which assumes that women’s issues will be taken care of if we just let the boys in charge continue trying to fix things as they always have, specificity of concerns be damned, and (more importantly) with no respect for the fact that we’re starting at a disadvantage. Second, lumped in with “and children” or as “pregnant women and babies” or “and families”. It’s that second point that interests me.
The compare and contrast of UNIFEM vs. UNICEF reveals that while the latter had over 8000 full time staff in 2004, the former had 45 or 50, and the budget differential came out 40:1. Now, I should hope it’s obvious that this argument is not intended to say that children are unimportant, nor would I pretend that women’s rights and concerns can be divorced from children’s/family needs, particularly as connected to poverty and especially globally. But I find those statistics telling, and I also find it noteworthy that we, as feminists, often find ourselves arguing for women’s rights with reference to the way improving them will have an impact on children, families, communities etc. Again, don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a relationship. I fully believe that improvements in women’s rights and making specific effort to reduce women’s experiences of poverty, violence and marginalization will improve the broader community, including the lives of children/families and have a positive impact on local economies.
But somehow, I can’t help but notice that we’re falling into a trap of feeling that we have to justify women’s rights with reference to some logic other than women’s rights. Women matter because of children, because of their role in the family, because of the community. We can get people to care when we call it child poverty, which obscures the reality that (both locally and globally) we’re largely talking about women’s poverty. If we’re talking about women specifically, without reference to chidlren, pregnancy or families, we get what Lewis calls “a monolith of indifference and paralysis” (his argument is a lot more extensive than I’m presenting here; I highly recommend the book/lecture recordings if you get a chance). As his title suggests, we’re talking about half the world, but there’s very little motivation for talking about their rights in and of themselves. Women’s marginalization has an extremely strong correlation to child poverty, infant mortality, children’s health, you name it…and child poverty, infant mortality, children’s health are extremely important issues. But that’s not why women’s rights matter, and I’m frustrated to no end that the only way we’re able to get women’s issues on the radar is to frame them in terms of their impact on children.
Lewis describes his experiences trying to refocus attention on women in Africa, and in particular on their increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, among UN agencies and refers to their attitude as nothing short of contempt. Just from basic experience advocating the relevance of feminism, I can relate to that feeling, and I often find myself falling into the “…and children” trap. To me, this is all connected to the idea of childhood innocence, and the division of the world into deserving vs. undeserving victims. It’s a lot easier to shut your mind off to caring about victims of domestic violence when you perceive it as in some way connected to their own choices. Living in a highly individualistic, bootstraps-based culture, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for adults, but our sympathies are piqued when it comes to helpless children. I don’t think this is disconnected from our sense of what it means to be “charitable” and compassionate, either, as I’ve talked before about how that is frequently a top-down process that ensures that the giver is able to retain a solid sense of hir own superiority. There’s little moral ambiguity – and little loss of control by those who already have power – involved in giving food to starving children, but attempting to deal with the agency and self-determining capacity of adult women (or racialized populations, for that matter) might just mean we disagree and could even find out that “our side” is wrong.
This is getting me into much more basic philosophical territory, but as usual, all roads seem to lead to the same common themes in my mind. I doubt it’s coincidental.