Thursday, October 27, 2011

The invisible cure

Helen Epstein, author of “The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS,” is sensible and effective—give women a voice and perhaps solve one of the world’s largest problems: overpopulation.

The United Nations is planning to announce this Monday that the world population has reached seven billion. We are living in an age of huge population growth, and there is question as to whether the earth and her depleting resources can support the extra billion(s). BBC News suggests that space is not the issue—if the entire world population lived in one mega-city, we could all actually fit in France. Alas, we do not all live in one place and the places we live vary greatly in terms of access to resources. Sadly, overpopulation, like most social issues, is mostly a problem for the poor. In southern Africa, children and adults, stunted from chronic hunger and poor nutrition, may have to share what little they have with an ever-increasing population. While the average number of children per woman has dropped over the last decade globally, the number of children that a Niger woman will bear remained an astounding seven in 2010.

This trend may be due to the fact that controls on population that have worked in other countries—namely, contraception and a push for abstinence (some would argue)—do not work in Africa because of deep-rooted, culturally sanctioned sexism. As I write this, I am careful to note the potential ethnocentricity of my words and judgments. As a Western-born woman in my 20’s, I am undoubtedly shaped by Western values of independence. But when I acknowledge my place as a woman of the world, bearing the evolutionary collective consciousness that is passed down over the generations regarding sex and childbirth, I cannot help but cringe that “choice” for Ghanaian women is between sex/babies and a beating. “If the man’s penis is up,” explained one, “unless it enters into the vagina, it won’t lie down. So allow him to have his sex and only then can you be free. Is it not better to have the sex than to have the beating?” This is not “choice,” it is not culture, and it does not deserve my deference.

Family planning and contraceptives have been rejected in Ghana by both men and women for years—something that has perplexed researchers. In describing Western scientists gone abroad, "Dr. Epstein borrows pseudonyms from the children’s Babar books. There they are — Celeste, Arthur and Cornelius — pleasant, ineffectual, two-dimensional cutouts pasted into a complex and dangerous landscape they will never quite fathom. It is a sadly inspired touch." So what makes researchers like Dr. Epstein, and Dr. James Phillips, Columbia University demographer, so different? Perhaps it is that instead of focusing their efforts on changing male minds, they focus on elevating and empowering women’s minds. Dr. Phillips noticed that fertility rates of born-again Ghanaian women were plummeting, he asked, “Why?” First, he noted that only Ghanaian men are allowed to speak with the ancestors and spirits. Thus, by introducing Ghanaian women to Jesus, missionaries were inadvertently empowering women to engage in a powerful cultural act previously closed off to women. Second, women involved in the church were given decision-making power. And even though the church did not promote family planning, the side-effect of this liberation was considered by Dr. Epstein to be “the invisible cure.” It is not a drug; it is not better contraception, or even education. It is simply empowerment. The message is sensible and effective: empower women and the world will be just fine.


Ringo1985 said...

I appreciate that this article touches on the many obstacles that women in third world nations, such as Africa, face today. I am often one to attribute such lack of empowerment to antiquated religious beliefs, and strongly believe that religion is the fundamental culprit responsible for the oppression that women in these countries face on a daily basis.

At the risk of sounding like the purpose of my entire post is an anti-religious tirade, I am extremely skeptical of any type of missionary assistance in foreign countries. Regardless of any overarching goals to help women in developing countries, I fail to see how any type of ideology that discourages birth control can effectively help women. I understand that these women in Ghana may feel empowered by the ability to "say no" to sex, but when they "say yes" to sex, they are unable to experience it without the risk of an unwanted pregnancy.

As you mentioned in your blog post, the world is reaching 7 billion people. With sex education, accompanied by independence from men and sexist indoctrination, we may be able to curb the excessive population growth. Although the problem lies in the misallocation of resources and income disparities globally, decreasing childbirth is the only method guaranteed to affect women on an individual scale. When one looks at the influence of the Catholic Church in South America, or Christian Missionaries in Africa, it is difficult to see how withholding precious technological gems from women, such as birth control, contraceptives, and abortion services, can do anything but continue to stymie the growth and opportunities available for such women.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

I believe that both of your arguments are equally valid. It is true that religious groups have long held to their social arguments against different forms of family planning. In doing so, African women have not had access to otherwise common mediums that can prevent the sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies so prevalent throughout the continent. But I don't believe that we should rail against their mission altogether.

Many of these religious groups pour precious resources into Africa's impoverished communities and tribes. They teach the African people industrial skills and agricultural trades to help sustain their lives. And, as Megan noted, they have given women a voice where they otherwise had none. Although this empowerment may have been an inadvertent benefit, it has benefited African women nonetheless.

It is sad to see so many other issues, such as family planning, ignored by these religious missionaries. But, there must be something said for the "invisible cure" they are providing to gender binaries and sexism in Africa. I am comforted, however, by the knowledge that other groups, such as USAID and Doctors Without Borders, are able to focus on these vital technological advances.

AMS said...


Methods of tackling overpopulation inevitably present complicated moral issues associated with culture, religion, and family planning. I appreciate the brilliance of your decision to look deeper. On its own, women's empowerment surely presents a viable method by which to curb population growth. Yet, female empowerment via decision-making experience with religious organizations seems like a completely different animal.

As S pointed out, religious organizations provide many important benefits to the members of developing communities. Women's empowerment through these organizations is something worthy of recognition. But, empowering women through such organizations presents a fundamentally flawed system of empowerment.

Religion (at least those of Judeo-Christian origins) largely promotes patriarchy. The well-established sects also tend to celebrate the gender differences rather than promoting equality. Thus, despite any associated female empowerment, I worry that as long as "the invisible cure" depends on religion, its effectiveness is only temporary.

What religion can provide is a forum for women to begin organizing. Hopefully through such associations, women can learn to rely on each other (and their male supporters)--rather than their religion. Empowerment rooted in a movement of women for the support of women and women's issues seems like a healthy start to solving issues related to sex and reproduction in the developing world. But, to me, a productive conversation about viable options for eliminating degrading sexual practices (and controlling population growth) necessitates a separation from the judgments of traditional, Judeo-Christian religion.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

"I cannot help but cringe that 'choice' for Ghanaian women is between sex/babies and a beating. 'If the man’s penis is up,' explained one, 'unless it enters into the vagina, it won’t lie down. So allow him to have his sex and only then can you be free. Is it not better to have the sex than to have the beating?'"

I hate this. Why is this the only choice that so many women still face, whether they live in Ghana or California? Why are women are so vulnerable to sexual violence?

Maybe it's biology: maybe we are just physically weaker and more likely to be the prey than the predator. But, modernity has brought with it means of self-defense that are beyond fist-to-face contact (or foot-to-testicles contact! Ok, maybe that was aggressive...but not nearly as aggressive as rape!)

Maybe, instead, the problem lies in the social construction of our strength and our victimhood as women. Maybe we are weaker because we think we are weaker. We are expected to be weaker -- in the same way that we are expected to lay down when a man (our spouse or otherwise...) gets horny.

Women were born with as much humanity and dignity as men. If you believe in destiny, then we couldn't have been put on this earth for the purpose of serving men. If you believe in happenstance, then the harmful imbalance of power between the genders is arbitrary. If you believe in evolution, then relegating women to the servitude of men can't be the best exercise of women's utility, and the resulting loss in our potential is detrimental to the advancement of the entire species.

This is outrageous. When will they stop raping us?