The common good depends on women’s empowerment
Where women are excluded from – or marginalised in – political life, relevant views are not expressed and the talent pool, from which leaders are recruited, is diminished. Where women do not take part – or only get minor roles – in economic life, productivity is low and too few people generate incomes. Where, by contrast, girls have equal opportunities in education, they normally do at least as well as boys – and often outperform them. Every human being must be empowered to tap her or his potential.
Around the world, gender stereotypes still tend to be oppressive, though progress is evident. Currently, the top leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are women. Women lead the governments of Bangladesh and Tanzania, and Honduras has just elected a female president. In Germany, eight of the 17 new cabinet members are women. Our previous cabinet was led by one.
Many cultures restrict women’s role to taking care of family and household matters. The background may be the fundamental biological difference between men and women. Only the latter can give birth and breastfeed. Women’s reproductive health is more complex than men’s, and they are particularly vulnerable when pregnant or nursing a baby. Ideas of male dominance are probably rooted in women’s particular need for protection and men’s on average greater physical strength. Major religions, including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, reinforced such ideas. Vulnerability, however, does not justify oppression.
Norms change over time. What may have been useful in the past, can become dysfunctional. It made sense to have many children when child mortality was high. Things look different where life expectancy is high, and every baby will probably grow up to be an adult. It becomes less attractive to have many children, but there are more incentives to invest in them early on – both in emotional and financial terms.
Around the world, birth rates have gone down as life expectancies went up. This trend is of crucial global relevance. Most likely, the world population will grow to 11 billion people by the end of this century. In environmental terms, fewer would be better, while more would mean disaster. The good news is that the growth rate may be decreasing faster than expected. India’s government recently reported that its nation’s women now only have two children on average, which is slightly below the reproduction rate. India’s population will thus probably peak in three decades at around 1.6 billion people rather than ten years later at 1.7 billion.
Declining birth rates correlate with better health care, better education and, of course, better access to contraceptives. Women must be able to take their fates into their own hands, so access to abortion matters too.
Education is a good starting point for empowering women, but more must happen. In the 20th century, pioneering women launched successful careers in politics, business, academia, the arts and other spheres of life. Girls around the world thus have role models who have proven that women can achieve as much as men. Nonetheless, many still face intimidation. While boys still tend to get more opportunities, girls are more exposed to sexual harassment and shaming. Women’s rights activists want to improve matters – and the common good depends on their success.
Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.