A Gender Divided

OXFORD – The top and the bottom of the list of countries in Newsweek’s recent cover story, “The 2011 Global Women’s Progress Report,” evoke images of two different worlds.

At the top of the list – the “Best Places to be a Woman” – we see the usual suspects: Iceland and the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada. On that planet, we see rankings in the upper 90’s for the survey’s five categories: justice, health, education, economics, and politics. Women are out-earning men in college degrees (United States), domestic abusers are being banned from their homes and tracked with electronic monitors (Turkey), and female prime ministers are being elected (Denmark and Australia).

Now look at the other planet, “The Worst Places in the World to be a Woman.” In Chad, the worst of the worst, woman have “almost no legal rights,” and girls as young as ten are legally married off, which is also true in Niger, the seventh worst place for a woman. Most women in Mali – the fifth worst – have been traumatized by female genital mutilation. In Democratic Republic of Congo, 1,100 women are raped every day. In Yemen, you are free to beat your wife whenever you like.

Though it is stunning to see these two worlds in such stark and detailed relief, their existence is not news: development specialists and human rights groups have been calling attention to these inequities for years. But the systemic oppression of women tends to be cast in terms of claims for empathy: we shouldn’t follow these policies because they are not nice, not enlightened. Some development researchers have started to make a compelling case, too, that oppression of women impedes countries’ efforts to escape poverty.