Progress means being able to wear pants

2012-01-24 00:00

SINCE the Industrial Revolution, global output and wealth have grown immensely. A number of factors have driven this growth — specialisation and the division of labour, the invention of the company with its risk-limiting quality, and of models for assembling financing for large projects, technological changes that let us harness the energy of fossil fuels, and innovations in management and communication.

Over the past 30 years or so, however, one of the most important drivers of economic growth has been the entry of women into the paid labour force. Obviously, women have always worked. They grew or gathered most of the food our ancestors consumed for most of history, raised the children, and performed myriad other crucial tasks in traditional and modern societies. However, once societies developed monetary labour markets and paid jobs, it took a while for women to begin participating in those markets in a meaningful way. Once they did, however, the effect was enormous.

The details of the impact of women’s entry into the labour force for developed countries is well documented (you can see a great discussion of this process here). Among other things, the entry of women into the labour market increased family incomes, national productivity and output, and economic growth rates in much of what is today the rich world. And, as this article argues, further increases in female workforce participation could help countries in the West facing ageing populations, meaning that even more female participation in public and economic life would bring even more benefits to the West.

For the developing world, the entrance of women into labour markets can have an even greater upside.

First, working outside the home empowers women to take a measure of control over their lives and their bodies, and almost always results in much lower fertility rates. In many African countries, where birth rates remain among the world’s highest, more female empowerment would help moderate unsustainable population growth, benefiting families and the environment.

Second, women generally channel more of their income into their families, spending money on schooling, food, and health care to a much greater extent than men, who are likely to spend more of their wages on themselves.

Thus, having more women working is good for families in poverty-stricken places like much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, the purpose of all this background is to make a simple point: if Africa is truly to prosper, one of the smartest things it could do would be to empower women to participate as equals in public and economic life. This would double the pool of skills and talent available to the continent, and would benefit the economy, families, and communities.

Against this backdrop, it is incredibly disheartening to see stories like the one aired by the BBC last week, which detailed how women in Malawi have been forced to hold protests after a number of them were beaten and publicly stripped for wearing pants, which are considered “not traditional” or “feminine”. And, of course, this is just one of many such stories. There have been many attacks on South African women who wear miniskirts, again on the grounds that such clothing is not traditional or feminine.

This argument — that certain types of clothing are not feminine or traditional — is exactly the kind of thing that will hold Africa back from achieving the levels of development that its citizens aspire to.

In the Western world, for many centuries, women were not permitted to wear certain clothes or do certain things. The culture of the West, however, changed. It evolved, and in doing so, it reaped enormous benefits, not only for women (although women certainly benefited), but for everyone.

Cultures are not static things, and if Africa hopes to break out of the cycle of poverty and take its rightful place in the world, African cultures must be allowed to change and grow in ways that will lead to more prosperity and freedom for all citizens.

This is not to say that traditional values or practices should be abandoned, but rather to say that cultures are always changing, and using violence to try to enforce a static culture is a recipe for stagnation and poverty. The people of Africa deserve better.


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