Why empowering women is critical for development

MARRIAGES ARE back on the table as a hot button issue. Now marriage has always been a touchy subject because no matter the angle, it takes on gender issues and economics.

MARRIAGES ARE back on the table as a hot button issue. Now marriage has always been a touchy subject because no matter the angle, it takes on gender issues and economics.

In this publication this week, Sunny Ntayombya, one of the columnists, addressed the concern of the new polygamy law in Kenya which, if promulgated, would allow men to marry additional wives without seeking the consent of the first wives.

In the United States, Susan Patton promoted her book that tells women to start ‘man-hunting’ when they are in college because it gets much harder to find ‘suitable men’ in the real world.

The discussion on marriage, while thoroughly enjoyable, may overlook a key component; the changing nature of the modern woman.

While people may feel that this is a controversial view, it is hard to honestly claim that marriage has ever really been a fair relationship between two equals.

Even in the United States the proportion of women who are homemakers is 40 per cent. While this is an honourable profession it can lead to a tenuous relationship with the primary ‘breadwinner’ when it comes to making independent economic decisions for oneself.

But these dynamics are changing. In Rwanda, more girls (52 per cent) go to school than boys. In the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU more women have advanced degrees than men, 15 per cent to 12 per cent.

The average age of marriage has been increasing year by year, with people in nations like Germany and Finland waiting until well into their 30s before getting married.

Ms. Patton suggests that women at elite institutions should look for husbands because these men are more likely to succeed. This goes without saying, the chances of a Harvard graduate becoming the United States president are higher than any other school with seven of them having Harvard as an alma mater.

But what Ms. Patton seems to overlook is that many of the future Harvard alum’s who become president may very well be women.

The number of women who are billionaires through managing and/or starting companies (so not inheriting the wealth), has nearly quadrupled in the last decade. Women at schools like Cambridge or MIT no longer need to position themselves as ‘good chances’ for men but rather now should be the ones doing the picking.

In Kenya, a Member of Parliament interestingly noted that women should expect future wives when they marry men because ‘this is Africa’. While the connotation in this argument is intellectually lazy it does lead itself to an interesting paradox; what if women rebelled against marriage in the first place?

Capital strike is the idea, mostly prominently argued in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, that people with the ‘ability to create’ when over burdened by regulations will simply go on strike.

Assuming that fertility is the capital good in a marriage, something men have no ability to bring to the table, then if women were to go on strike there would probably be a strong foundation to negotiate the terms set by the members of parliament.

Christopher Hitchens, the writer, argued that the only way to develop a nation was to ‘ensure the rights of women’. This must include the right of women to not only be equal to men in all shapes and forms, but have equal rights in marriage and divorce and have the right to make decision with regard to their bodies and reproduction.

Few things in economics are as empirical as the correlation of women’s empowerment and development. There is no surprise that the five poorest countries are, according to the United Nations, also some of the worst places to be a woman. The inverse is equally clear.

Marriage, in the end, can be a tool for a variety of things: an economic union, a bond between lovers, an expression of fidelity before God, etc. but no marriage is truly equal between two people unless gender and economic considerations are taken into account. 

If that dynamism is not there then it is simply a negotiation with one party holding a better set of cards.

The writer is a Rwandan economist based in Copenhagen.


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