The Common Good

Justice Starts With Empowering Women in Developing Countries

“They took the door off so the hyenas would get her.” 

Author Sheryl WuDunn speaks at the TED Global conference in Oxford, England. Photo courtesy CNN.

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Sitting in the darkened room with thousands of others, I listened intently as the woman on stage continued. The speaker was no other than Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Half the Sky, and the setting was this year’s Justice Conference

Having previously read Half the Sky, I was reminded again of the countless numbers of women who looked beyond their circumstances to overcome challenges, and change their families and communities for the better. I remembered the underlying causes of global gender inequality, and WuDunn’s urgent call in her book to empower girls and women. The solution to ending poverty lies in educating females and bringing them into the formal workforce. In that, women’s empowerment isn’t simply a good issue to promote, but part of creating a just world. 

Gender inequality and poverty go hand-in-hand, and women and girls pay a heavy price, especially in the developing world. When a society limits a girl’s access to education or a woman’s ability to work, it stunts its own development by not utilizing 50 percent of its population. On an individual level, women have no way to support themselves and their families, and are vulnerable to exploitation. Poor, rural girls are prime targets for sex traffickers, and in many cultures a woman’s worth is measured by her ability to bear children – preferably sons. 

Discrimination is not limited to society but also present in families. In addition to being denied an education or the ability to decide when to marry and have children, sexism results in parents giving less food to daughters than sons while growing up. Even when families can afford to feed children of both genders, girls still receive less. When a girl becomes sick, she is less likely to receive timely medical attention than her brother. It’s no surprise, then, that the mortality rate for girls in the developing world is 50 percent higher than the mortality rate for boys.  

Can justice exist in a world like this? 

When girls and women are empowered, it can. In Ethiopia, Sheryl met Mahabouba. Sold into an abusive marriage, Mahabouba became pregnant at 14 and ended up in obstructed labor for days. She eventually lost the baby and developed a fistula, losing control of her bladder and bowels. Her village thought her cursed and moved her to a deserted hut where the door was taken away in hopes the hyenas would kill her. When they came at the night, Mahabouba fought the hyenas with a stick, desperate to survive. In the morning, she left in search of a missionary she had heard of who could help her. Days later, after traveling alone and in pain, she reached her destination and was taken to a clinic by the missionary.

Years later, Mahabouba is a nurse, treating fistula patients like herself. 

Empowering girls and women does more than end poverty or change communities; it brings justice to a broken world. It reverses vulnerabilities to strengths, and transforms victims into leaders and advocates. Most importantly, it places a woman’s value in her humanity rather than her reproductive function or economic worth. And this reflects the very heart of God and His love for women created in His image. 

Despite the injustices she experienced, one act of love changed Mahabouba’s life and enabled her to become an agent of change. It restored her humanity, and today she works to restore the humanity of others. Let her life and the life of the missionary who helped her be the examples we look to as we continue the work of justice and women’s empowerment. 

 
Deborah Whang is a women's rights advocate from Washington, DC.  She holds an MPA with a concentration in Women, Public Policy & Poltical Leadership from American University.  
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