WIPA: Women & Public Policy Winning Essay [FULL]

The following essay was submitted by Rebecca Tisdale for the 2011 Women & Public Policy Essay Contest.  Gayle Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana judged this contest and awarded Rebeeca Tisdale the title of winner.

Q: What strategies would you propose to more effectively include and integrate women in development policies? What would be the challenges? How would you over come them?

WIPA Board Member Leslie Lovo (left) Rebecca Tisdale (center) & WIPA Board Member Sophie Guerin (right)

Women’s health is society’s health: educated, healthy women raise educated, healthy children who contribute to an educated, healthy society. It is therefore essential to include and integrate women into any development policy.

Yet in much of the world, women are far from educated or healthy. Worldwide, girls receive much less education than boys; women make up the great majority of the poor and very poor, and own a small minority of the land; and nearly half a million women die yearly of causes related to childbirth.

Perhaps most disturbingly, there are millions of “missing girls” in the world; that is, the male: female ratio is skewed in favor of men, despite biological reasons why the opposite should be true. Why? Thousands of girls are selectively aborted, abandoned, or given less food or medicine than boys every year. In some areas of East and South Asia, this gender ratio can be as extreme as 140 boys for every 100 girls. This favoring of boys is not limited to the developing world: in the United States, one study found that parents of girls are significantly more likely to divorce than those of boys.

Such dramatic statistics can only be due to extremely misaligned incentives. Indeed, in many places it simply does not make economic sense for poorer families to raise girls; when property and bloodline passes through male heirs, particularly if a dowry is involved (paid by the bride’s family), investing in female children is seen as akin to “watering your neighbor’s garden.”

The only way to improve this dismal picture is to increase girls’ worth. This means bringing girls’ education, and corresponding earning potential, to a level equal to that of their male counterparts. But how can we begin to accomplish this?  A variety of smaller-scale, manageable projects that may serve as models have been implemented worldwide. For example, in India and China, Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programs that pay parents to vaccinate or educate their daughters have met with success in the form of more even gender ratios. Giving women better control of families’ finances may help, as mothers have been shown to be more likely to reinvest money in their families—rather than, say, beer—and thereby increase the “size of the pie” available to split among family members. Women-focused microfinance programs are one way to attempt this.  Empowering women with regards to their sexual and reproductive health is another key avenue; when women can determine how many children they wish to have and when, the number of births per woman tends to decrease dramatically—again, allowing families to spend more per family member.

There are challenges to implementing these recommendations: the underrepresentation of women at all levels of government throughout the world, cultural traditions against women’s control of money or sexuality, lack of resources… However, none of these is insurmountable. We can and must explore gendered aspects of any development policy, and these ideas are at least a starting place to do so.

Rebecca Tisdale with The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Rebecca graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Human Biology, an interdisciplinary major combining biology and the social sciences. Before coming to the MPA, Rebecca conducted research in women’s health and interned at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy foundation based in Menlo Park, CA.  She also worked post-graduation as a Course Associate for the Stanford Human Biology program, teaching anthropology, psychology, and health and environmental policy to Stanford undergraduates. After completing her studies at the MPA, Rebecca will attend medical school at Columbia University in order to ultimately work in the field of global health policy. She is currently a Masters of Public Affairs candidate at SciencesPo (’12).

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