The denial of the rights of women abroad is often excused as an expected byproduct of a nation’s underdeveloped economy or nondemocratic system of government. This narrative – that women abroad are denied human rights because their countries are poor or undemocratic – improperly implies that as nations progress economically and democratically, women will surely gain more freedoms. This is, however, a distortion of reality that minimizes our compassion for women in lesser-developed nations. A brief consideration of women’s rights in two of the world’s leading lesser-developed nations demonstrates that women continue to be denied basic human rights, despite a nation’s economic and democratic gains.
Ghana and India have demonstrated competitive economic and democratic progress, but Ghanaian and Indian women continue to face outrageous inequities. This week, BBC News reported two cases of women being denied basic human rights in each country. The first report is about a 100-year-old Ghanaian practice of exiling eccentric or otherwise undesirable women to isolated “witch camps.” The second report is of an Indian woman who fought for 24 years to prove that she was alive after her ex-husband declared her dead so that he could transfer all his property to his third wife. In both cases, women were denied very basic human rights despite the economic and democratic advancements of their societies.
The denial of women’s rights abroad is not an inherent consequence of a nation’s status as a lesser-developed nation. India and Ghana demonstrate competitive economic development. In 2011, Ghana experienced a 13.6% GDP growth rate, standing out as last year’s fastest growing economy in Africa, and ranking fourth on a global scale. In the same year, India ranked as the world’s fourth wealthiest country with a GDP of over four and a half trillion U.S. dollars.
Similarly, a democratic system of government does not ensure the progress of women’s rights. The U.S. State Department reports that Ghana is a constitutional democracy in which “citizens exercised [their right to vote] through periodic, free, and fair elections.” Ghana is ranked 78 out of 167 nations on The Economist’s Democratic Index, ranking higher than the Ukraine, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey and at least 34 Sub-Saharan African nations. India is ranked 39 on the Democratic Index, beating Poland, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Brazil.
Women’s problems in Africa and Asia are not uniquely African or Asian problems that do not merit our attention. The basic human rights of women abroad will not be secured simply as a result of a nation’s economic or democratic advancements. If that were the case, then today’s American feminists would not have had to fight (again) for the right to contraception. The belief that the denial of women’s rights will simply ease with time as nations develop competitive markets and free economies is not only inaccurate – it’s a cop out.