The Unintended Consequences of Female Empowerment

In social sciences, unintended consequences are outcomes that are different from those expected.  In development, unintended consequences are common, and often negative by nature.

As a generalization, there are two approaches to development: top-down and bottom-up.  The top-down approach, favored by Jeffrey Sachs, calls for a prescriptive methodology – government-to-government aid, debt relief, and targeted interventions designed to reduce poverty and increase incomes.  The best example of the top-down approach in action is the Millenium Villages Project (read about it here).  In contrast, the bottom-up approach favors a more descriptive methodology, investing in projects with proven results.  Bill Easterly, the standard-bearer of the bottom-up folks coined a term for the two groups: “searchers” vs. “planners.”  Searchers look for the right solutions and focus on what works, while planners define the solution ahead of time.

I am more of a searcher myself, and I still haven’t quite found what works (though I’m getting warmer in Kenya).  Microfinance is a good example of a bottom-up approach – providing a foundation of financial services at the grassroots level upon which to grow and expand.  And usually searchers have a better track record of reducing the prevalence of unintended negative consequences than planners, since planners try to account for all of the variables in advance, which is impossible.  And sometimes, no matter what happens, there will be unfortunate consequences that would be difficult to anticipate without a deep cultural understanding of the society.

Such is the discussion of a recent opinion piece from Ross Douthat, a conservative pro-life columnist for the New York Times.  The article is largely about how the spread of abortion to developing countries has contributed to the 100 million missing women around the world, as described by Amartya Sen in an article from 1990.  But he also raises a larger point, which the Democracy in America blog at the Economist highlights (trying not to name-drop):

IN WHAT was bound to be a controversial column, Ross Douthat, citing new work by journalist Mara Hvistendahl, argues that female empowerment has led to more sex-selective abortion:

The spread of sex-selective abortion is often framed as a simple case of modern science being abused by patriarchal, misogynistic cultures. Patriarchy is certainly part of the story, but as Hvistendahl points out, the reality is more complicated—and more depressing.

Thus far, female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less. In many communities, she writes, “women use their increased autonomy to select for sons,” because male offspring bring higher social status. In countries like India, sex selection began in “the urban, well-educated stratum of society,” before spreading down the income ladder.

Is it true that gender empowerment, the ultimate buzzword in the development community, has actually led to an increase in sex-selective abortions?  If so, that is a pretty big unintended consequence.  I think that cultural issues are nuanced, and oftentimes the best of intentions will backfire, or at least be manifested in strange ways.  Still, according to the Economist again, the stakes are high:

And all countries need to raise the value of girls. They should encourage female education; abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters inheriting property; make examples of hospitals and clinics with impossible sex ratios; get women engaged in public life—using everything from television newsreaders to women traffic police. Mao Zedong said “women hold up half the sky.” The world needs to do more to prevent a gendercide that will have the sky crashing down.

Very true.  But, on the road to empowerment, there are bound to be some unintended consequences.  I suppose the best thing to do is to search for a solution and go with what works.

One thought on “The Unintended Consequences of Female Empowerment

  1. danae

    I don’t have any knowledge or data to draw upon to comment on how much modern, medical abortion has been used for sex selection purposes, but I do wonder if the blame here is unfairly placed on abortion.

    Gender empowerment (however defined) to my mind, leads to the development of women’s roles in society that are meant to negate the desire to sex select via abortion or otherwise discriminate against females and their human, social, cultural, and economic rights.

    Abortion is a service women can access, a tool available for them to use.
    Perhaps it’s true that there are unintended consequences here to speak of — but maybe they are the unintended consequences of introducing abortion without proper attention to context, social pressures and cultural mores, rather than the service or tool itself.

    After all, it would be ignorant of the development community to acknowledge non-medical, at-home, unsafe abortions that have always taken place. It might be true that the introduction of medical, ‘safe’ abortion has led to an increase in total abortions. But it is not the introduction of the service itself that is drives these, even if it perpetrates them.

    ‘Autonomy’ to son-select is not the autonomy I have thought we are talking about in women’s empowerment. If abortion is truly as ‘popular’ as this, it might provide an intervention opportunity for counseling, or at the very least, some better body of evidence to showcase and alert others to the extent of the problem, and if used strategically, to mobilize more resources and efforts towards real empowerment of women in society, not just to make decisions that only echo society on other levels.

    Just my thoughts..

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