Why women’s rights matter to everyone

While it may seem far-fetched at first, there’s a correlation between women’s rights and world peace. Violence and instability thrive where preference for sons skews demographics or women are treated as “less than”.

The countries that threaten regional and global peace are the very places where women and girls are deprived of dignity and opportunity—Hillary Clinton, 2013

Correlation is not causation, so it’s important to look closely to sort out causes and effects. But rigorous statistical analysis clearly shows how women’s rights contribute to world peace.

Status societies and contract societies

Henry Maine‘s continuum of status- and contract societies is a useful lens for examining social stability. Status societies center around the family, clan, or tribe, while contract societies center around the individual. In times past, clans or tribes needed to band together to provide protection and some measure of social order. But in societies with strong clan influence, government by the state tends to be weak, corrupt, or inadequate. And in advanced societies, vestiges of tribalism undermine government.

Outside rich democracies, the male kinship group is still the basic unit of many societies. Such groups emerged largely for self-defence: male cousins would unite to repel outsiders. Today, they mostly cause trouble. Tit-for-tat clan feuds spatter blood across the Middle East and the Sahel. Tribes compete to control the state, often violently, so they can divvy up jobs and loot among their kin. Those states become corrupt and dysfunctional, alienating citizens and boosting support for jihadists who promise to govern more justly.—The Economist11 September 2021

We’ve discussed previously how weak rule of law and corruption lead to environmental damage in Guinea, Congo, and Latin America. Now let’s look at social instability.

Women’s rights and the fraternal order

In The First Political OrderHudson, Bowen and Nielsen draw a connection between lack of women’s rights in the home and social instability. The clan or tribe is essentially a fraternal order that relies on the subordination of women. The First Political Order shows how subordination of women leads to social instability, food insecurity, poverty, and environmental deterioration.

In different parts of the world, regardless of culture or religion, certain common practices subordinate women. Ultimately they make life worse for men, too.

  • Violence against women in the home becomes a training ground for violence in the larger society—and beyond.
  • Preference for sons can skew demographics via selective abortions or neglect of girls. Large numbers of young men who can’t marry are easy for organizations such as Boko Haram or Islamic State to recruit. All they have to do is promise them “wives” as the spoils of war.
  • Bride price—payment by the groom’s family to the bride’s family—can put marriage out of reach for many men. Like demographic imbalance, it leaves a lot of frustrated and resentful young men.
  • Plural marriage deprives men of lower status the opportunity to marry.
  • Child marriage and cousin marriage both leave wives vulnerable to abuse. Child brides are also ill-equipped to care for or educate their own children. That affects everything from the children’s health to their economic prospects.
  • Lack of property rights deprives women of full access to the economy. That makes it hard for them to run a business or expand beyond subsistence farming, for example.

Of course such practices aren’t peculiar to tribal societies. It was only in 1988 that American women could get business loans without male cosigners. And the #MeToo movement has highlighted the ongoing violence against women around the world.

A natural experiment: South Korea

In the normal course of things, for every 100 girls born, there are 104 to 107 boys. But where parents prefer sons over daughters, the numbers are much higher. In 2017, China had 114 boys born for every 100 girls, while India had 112 and Vietnam had 110. In South Korea, those numbers declined from more than 116 in 1990 to the natural range of 104 to 107 beginning in 2007. What brought that about?

Choi and Hwang suggest several reasons why parents might prefer to have a son (or daughter). If parents have to provide a dowry for a daughter, that raises the cost of bringing her up. On the other hand, boys are biologically more susceptible to disease and behavioral problems, so caring for them takes more effort. Or couples may benefit more from having a son—for example, if sons traditionally take care of their aging parents.

[C]hild gender may enter directly into the household budget constraint if the cost of raising boys and girls differs… If girls are more expensive to raise than boys because of large dowries, for instance, parents would be less likely to have another child when the first child is female given a negative income effect. For the same reason, parents would be more likely to abort female fetuses than male fetuses. On the other hand, if boys are more expensive to raise than girls, son-biased stopping rules would arise but not selective abortion of female fetuses.—Choi and Hwang, 2020

Several Korean traditions militate in favor of sons. Confucianism traces the family lineage through the male descendants. The oldest son is responsible for the rituals for his ancestors, while a daughter marries into her husband’s family. Economic opportunities favor men, and sons take care of their aging parents.

Promoting women’s rights

young black woman at microscope
Equal access to education—particularly STEM education—promotes women’s independence. Shutterstock image.

Even so, Koreans are much less biased toward sons than they used to be, as evidenced by their changing responses to the question, “Suppose you could only have one child. Would you prefer that it be a boy or a girl?” In 1996, 40.4% answered “boy,” 9.8% answered “girl,” and the rest answered “either”. By 2008, however, the corresponding figures were 23.5%, 16.1%, and 60.5%.

Although culture tends to be persistent, even a deeply rooted norm can weaken substantially over the course of a generation when incentives change. Economic growth, policies promoting gender equality in education and the labor market, the extension of public pensions, and family planning policies would have all played a role in reducing the child gender effect in South Korea and may continue to do so.—Choi and Hwang, 2020

Hudson, Bowen and Nielsen discuss several changes that promote women’s rights. Most of them relate to government policies.

  • Pensions make the elderly less dependent on having sons to take care of them, eroding the preference for sons.
  • Urbanization means fewer women move in with their husbands’ families, so their lives aren’t under their direct control.
  • Outlawing child marriage, cousin marriage, plural marriage, and dowries—and enforcing these laws—raises women’s status in the family and in society at large.
  • Property rights and access to credit enable full participation in the economy.
  • Equalizing family law puts women on a more equal footing at home.