The NYT Issue on Women: An African Man’s Perspective

Edwin Okong’o

We, the people of the developing world, complain about unfair and inaccurate reporting by Western journalists because we know how differently stories might have turned out if they had consulted the experts among us.

The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development.  In the coming weeks, Rewire will feature commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad. 
A series, compiling all of the responses published on Rewire, will be published on Friday, September 11th.

Edwin Okong’o is a
writer and associate editor at New America Media.

On Aug. 23, I got to read the much-anticipated New York
Times Magazine issue dedicated to women of the developing world.

The lead story, “The Women’s Crusade” by Nicholas D. Kristof
and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, set the tone for the issue. And it portrayed an
Africa that I hardly recognize. It also calls for a response.

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Before I critique what they wrote, let me make one thing
clear: I have deep respect for the couple. In 1990, Kristof and WuDunn became the first couple to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square. In his career, Kristof has gone where few
journalists would dare go. His continuous commentary from Darfur exposed the
Sudanese government’s atrocities against civilians and earned him another
Pulitzer in 2006.

Kristof’s travel resume is unrivaled. According to his bio
on the NYT’s Web site, he “has lived on four continents, reported on six, and
traveled to more than 140 countries, plus all 50 [U.S.] states, every Chinese
province and every main Japanese island.”

But reading “The Women’s Crusade” made me feel like I was
reading a tale from the 19th Century. The authors declare correctly that this
century should be about tackling “the brutality inflicted on so many women and
girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass
rape.” However, the story portrays the developing world as a backward frontier
full of rapists, wife beaters, sex traffickers and “bride burners.” If I hadn’t
grown up in Kenya, one of the places Kristof and WuDunn wrote about, it would
have been hard for me to imagine the existence of even a single good man in the
developing world.

The men of Ivory Coast spend their "money on alcohol
and tobacco.” Pakistanis abandon wives who don’t bear sons. Indians burn brides
to “punish a woman for an inadequate dowry.” Chinese men kidnap women and
condemn them to sexual slavery in brothels. And all the poor people of the
developing world have one thing in common: They spend heavily on a “combination
of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts” instead of
spending on the education of their children. (That can be said about a lot of
places in the United States, but I’ll leave that for another day).

In the article, Kristof and WuDunn exhibit the kind of
condescension we Africans often see in Western journalists, even those who have
spent so many years abroad. I believe that most of them mean well and sincerely
want to see an end to the atrocities they expose. But their overwhelming focus
on the developing world’s hot enclaves undermines their goodwill and skews
their reporting.

Placing a blanket misogynist label on men from the Third
World, for example, damages Kristof’s and WuDunn’s credibility by making people
in the developing world ask whether the journalists really understand the
places they cover. (When I asked a Kenyan man last year to give me an example
of a foreign journalist who had gotten a story wrong, he said, “Nicholas
Kristof of the New York Times.” The man said he believed Kristof had been
malicious, not negligent.)

This distrust is further aggravated by Western journalist’s
reluctance to seek the expertise of local people. A common complaint of people
of the developing world is that they only appear in Western stories as subjects
– either as poor, hopeless victims, or as savage creatures in need of the
West’s moral intervention. They are never considered vital ingredients of the
problem-solving recipe.

Kristof and WuDunn, for instance, almost exclusively tap
experts from the West: Michael Kremer and Erica Field of Harvard; Esther Duflo
of M.I.T.; William Easterly, New York University; Dr. Lewis Wall, the Worldwide
Fistula Fund; Michael Horowitz, conservative agitator on humanitarian issues;
the activist Jo Luck, Heifer Foundation; Larry Summers, Bill Gates, the World
Bank, the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

We, the people of the developing world, complain about
unfair and inaccurate reporting by Western journalists because we know how
differently stories might have turned if they had consulted the experts among
us. An African expert might have told Kristof and WuDunn that the continent is
full of men who care deeply about the education of girls and women’s rights in

Men in the developing world do not deny there exist serious
violations of women’s rights. Many of us have seen injustices committed against
our mothers, sisters and other women we love. We have lived with men who spend
lavishly while their children languish in poverty.

But we also know men who protect their mothers and educate
their sisters and daughters. To pile such men with rapists, misogynists and
wife beaters is outright offensive and counterproductive.

Just like the movements to end slavery and segregation in
the American South couldn’t have been successful without white people, the
fight for women’s rights will not be won without enlisting men from the
cultures where abusing women is rampant.

Kristof and WuDunn highlight that “foreign aid is
increasingly directed to women.” While this is cause for celebration, the
authors ignore the fact that aid doesn’t often get to the poor men. We can
spend 10 times the billions of dollars the authors proposed to empower all the
women of the world, but those efforts will be in vain if we do not empower men.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the empowerment of men is the fact that even
in the developed world men who are in debt, unemployed and unable to provide
for their families often turn their shame into violence against their wives and

Educating men is also just as important as “the women’s
crusade.”  While it is true that in
the developing world men dominate educational institutions and workplaces, they
lack education on the important role women can play in creating a prosperous
society. More resources need to be invested in teaching boys and young men to
break the cycle of violence against women.

One thing I have found more effective is encouraging young
men to think about their mothers and sisters. You should see their faces when I
ask them how they would feel if someone abused their little sister, or if the
woman being abused by her in-laws was their mother.

Three years ago, a young man my sister had been dating came
to tell me that he intended to marry her. Normally he would have gone to my
father but since the old man had passed away, I assumed the role of father to
my siblings. To an outsider, the customary act of my sister’s husband-to-be
seeking my approval might seem misogynistic. But I had told my sister that –
like most women of my 2-million-strong Gusii tribe – she did not need any man’s
permission to marry a man she loves.

I also told her future husband that I did not want a dowry
for my sister. All I asked was that he be kind, loving and respectful to her. I
added that our family would not be ashamed to have my sister come home if she
were abused.

I know a lot of African men who share my views. For example,
at a recent convention of Kenyan Americans held in Boston, the issue of women’s
education and rights was at center stage. I have gone to convention after
convention of Africans in the United States, both as a journalist and a
participant. In every one of them issues of empowering women have been
discussed. And in every one of them, I rarely see an American journalist.

Kristof, WuDunn and many Western journalists have done women
great service by bringing attention to the important issue of women’s rights.
But the absence of Western journalists from the conversations around this issue
makes them rush to condemning every man from the developing world as an
oppressor of women.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.


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