In the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of attention given to women and girls. From US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statements that womens issues are not "soft" political issues, to Obama's appointment of Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer to head up the Office of Global Women's Issues, to the passage of numerous UN Resolutions, such as 1325 and 1820 (focused on involving women in peace negotiations and ending gender-based and sexual violence), to the fact that NGOs, large and small, are turning their sights to women's empowerment as the best bet for creating broader social change. And all with good reason-there is much evidence that whether it is in conflict, economic crisis, environmental degradation, religious and nationalist extremism, or domestic violence, women and girls suffer disproportionately. Because of this, women most certainly have a key role to play in adressing the myriad issues challenging the globe today.
It is good strategy to elevate the status of women's human rights in international affairs. The statistics clearly demonstrate that it is a wise investment for governments, NGOs, the UN and others to work to "empower" women. There is ample evidence that shows that educating women and girls is one of the most effective means to improve communities, alleviate poverty, and reduce overpopulation.
Therefore, it is absolutely critical to include a gendered perspective in international relations, development, and humanitarian assistance approaches. The truth is, for far too long men's voices and men's experiences have been the "universal" lens through which academics, policy makers, development workers and other leaders have viewed the world. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that women's interests are not served within this existing paradigm. Women have simply been omitted from the dialogue.
The fact is the life experiences of women are often very different from those of men. That is why women are best equipped to understand and sympathize with the experiences of other women, and are therefore uniquely qualified to advocate for the kind of change that will most benefit women's lives and communities. Women cannot rely on men to be their proxies locally, nationally, or internationally, because women are best able to understand and navigate the complex intersections that make up their identities as women, mothers, sisters, wives, sexual-violence survivors, care-givers, citizens, ethnic and religious group members, lesbians, etc.
That said, it is important to proceed with caution and avoid the instrumentalization of women's empowerment. We should refrain from monetizing the approaches and outcomes targeting women. In other words, we must resist the temptation to locate the value of educating and empowering women strictly as a means to an economic development end.
Yes, educating women may alleviate poverty and improve community economies.
Yes, there are economic benefits to reducing population growth, infant and maternal mortality, and the spread of HIV/AIDS by giving women ownership over their bodies and sexuality.
Yes, there are important geo-political implications for engaging women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations.
But, we cannot lose sight of the fact that educating and empowering women and girls is good for them. It alleviates their suffering. It allows women to lead lives of self-determiniation, open to opportunities for enrichment and expression. It allows them to make choices about who they are and who they want to be. And it allows them to help substantively shape the world that they, we, live in. And that, regardless of the associated economic benefits, should be reason enough.
Natasha Lamoreux is a Graduate Student at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University and Theory of Change and Human Rights Intern for ActKnowledge. Natasha was the runner up in atlantic-community.org’s op-ed competition "Women on Transatlantic Security” with her submission “Resolution 1325: From Rhetoric to Action”.