Time and time again, we see that women are exploited on a massive scale with no regard for their health consequences. The American tobacco industry serves as a fitting example. Advertising specifically towards women because they were an untapped market at the time, the rates of female smokers began to rise and CEOs of the immoral corporations yielded all of the financial benefit. Women, of course, were left with crippling lung cancer some thirty years later. We also see exploitation when women are viewed misused as sexual objects, often resulting in the spread of life-threatening diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
In the overwhelming majority of societies, we see a recurring gender dynamic: Men are the presumed breadwinners while women are the second priority—expected to be docile and submissive. It is then no surprise that gender inequality is only exacerbated in developing countries. And when women are reliant on men to keep them afloat, there lies always the possibility of forfeiting their sexual and reproductive freedom. Societal norms of the “dominant male” pressure women out of asking to use condoms, and as a result many are left with no other option than to cope with venereal diseases and to give birth to children they didn’t anticipate. The best way to grant women ownership of their own bodies is through freeing them from financial dependence on a man. When a woman can financially support herself, she will not have to stay with a man who compromises her sexual and reproductive freedoms.
In Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues, Paul Farmer tells the tragic story of Guylène, a Haitian woman who is continually left alone to care for her children after men consistently leave her after one or two years. Notably, at a later point in her life, Guylène conceives another child while fully cognizant that it is strongly against doctors’ recommendations. In such a situation, one is inclined to wonder: Was the birth of this child really on Guylène’s own accord or was it her partner’s rash decision to have unprotected sex and leave her to face the consequences? She spends her life trying to find economic support from men who only give her life-altering disease and children she can’t properly raise. Lack of financial freedom keeps her in search of a male supporter, and social norms allow him to dominate/pressure her sexually. If Guylène had the means to be financially independent, she would have been able to live without a man, but instead, she has no choice.
A study mentioned in Infections and Inequalities showed that women’s dependency on men for rent greatly decreased the likeliness of condom use because she lacks the authority to demand it. The most constructive method to combat this injustice is through providing women the means to become financially independent.
A strong determinant of a woman’s capability to support herself is the amount of education she has received. Education can more easily lead to a career, giving a woman more opportunity to leave a man if she is in an oppressive relationship. In Zambia, many girls would stop going to school once they got their period because the school lacked private bathrooms. As a result, they would resort to using a bush, which is demoralizing and emotionally scarring—especially for these young women. Amazingly, girls’ attendance shot back up after the school installed a toilet. All factors considered, something as little as providing a bathroom can inadvertently save a woman from early motherhood and/or deadly infectious disease!
Another approach is through teaching women about financial independence through hosting workshops and training. The co-founder of a financial services firm called Life & Money wrote an article on his workshops he gives to women in India, and has reported that he sees a lot of potential in the women who show up. A similar economic empowerment program was established in Guatemala, though the founders warned that programs like these can anger husbands to the point that they become even more abusive towards their wives than they were in the first place. With these concerns in mind, we must still push on in attempt to give all women the chance to be financially independent.
Whether it’s vocational or professional skills, all women in developing countries deserve an education in some sort of field that has the potential to lead her to a career. It is one of the only ways we can hope for a future in which women are not subject to the unpredictable and uncontrollable desires of a male partner and do not fall victim to venereal diseases and unplanned pregnancy.
- To what extent does financial freedom really ameliorate the health status of women in developing countries? Are there other factors that stand in the way of a woman’s reproductive health more than financial dependency?
- What are your thoughts on the effectiveness public health projects such as the toilet installation at the school in Zambia? Will increased attendance in school protect women from relying on men in the future?
- Do the benefits of an economic empowerment workshop outweigh the risk of more intense abuse from a spouse? If not, how can we improve and/or alter the methods used to empower women to become self-dependent?
Brandt, Allen. 2007. The Cigarette Century. New York: Basic Books (p. 448-492)
Bolis, Mara. 2015, September 11. “First, do no harm” in supporting women’s economic empowerment. http://politicsofpoverty.oxfamamerica.org/2015/09/first-do-no-harm-in-supporting-womens-economic-empowerment/
Iyengar, Partha. 2015, September 22. Women Empowerment and Financial Freedom. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/partha-iyengar/women-empowerment-and-fin_b_8162316.html
P. Farmer. 1999. Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mis, Magdalena. 2015, September 8. Zambia: How to Keep a Girl From Missing School, Marrying? Give Her a Toilet. http://allafrica.com/stories/201509081580.html