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I'm Done With Women's Issues

05/08/2014 02:06 pm 14:06:58 | Updated Jul 08, 2014

Women are hot. Policymakers, businesses and organizations -- even Republicans -- are singling out the need to champion issues especially crucial to women. I certainly welcome this but I question whether we're missing the forest for the trees. Women are not an interest group and the time for framing "women's issues" is past.

What's terribly frustrating about debates and policy arguments for including women is the narrow-mindedness with which women's equality is perceived. There's a deep lack of strategic thinking when it comes to looking at gender equality. Media headlines turn "better off for women" into "worse off for men," when in truth, we'll all thrive if women have equality. Furthermore, we shouldn't view gender equality as a bleeding-heart ideal, a warm and fuzzy "right thing to do." Equality is indicative of the health and economic power of an economy, a nation, a world. And states that ignore this fact are only doing themselves harm.

Take family planning, considered the ultimate "women's issue." Wrong. Improved global access to family planning is strategic. Its absence dramatically affects both men and women. Until women can control when and how they have children, we can't expect women to be able to control their lives, their education, their ability to work and provide for themselves and their families. As anyone who has had or has considered starting a family knows, children come with considerable costs -- financial and temporal -- that affect both mothers and fathers.

I had the honor of chairing a panel at the World Bank Spring meeting hosted by International Planned Parenthood Federation in consort with the White Ribbon Alliance. According to Marie Stopes International, 222 million women around the world have an unmet need for family planning. Access to this care would prevent unnecessary deaths, abortions and reduce poverty.

Those worried about our planet's exponentially expanding population and the stress of overpopulation on natural resources should also be concerned with providing adequate family planning to women. As Melinda Gates explained in the Gates Foundation 2014 Annual Letter, "the countries with the most deaths have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births, too." Access to family planning resources, coupled with improved child mortality rates, leads to slower population growth and strong, healthy families.

I think often when we talk about family planning and access to contraception, we get distracted by a red herring, the unfortunate taboo of women having sex for something other than producing children. This boxes family planning in as feminist issue, not a vital piece of healthcare and economic development that affects both the women who may bear children and the men who would ultimately also be responsible for them.

Family planning is a good investment. Countries that are going the wrong direction on poverty are also those with growing populations. Currently, the World Bank separates out measures of access to reproductive health in separate indices. In its corporate scorecard, the World Bank currently includes some reproductive health indicators, including maternal mortality ratio, pregnant women receiving antenatal care and the prevalence of HIV in women.

International Planned Parenthood Federation wants the World Bank to "harmonize" action indicators and include unmet family planning needs, contraceptive prevalence rate and total fertility rate. There is an intrinsic value in including family planning measures into more broad economic health indices. Access to contraception can signal a march toward economic health.

According to IPPF, for every dollar invested in family planning you'll get a $2 to $6 rate of return in sub-Saharan Africa. If we want women contributing to the global economy and able to provide for their families, we need to give them the means to control when and how they have children.

But advocating too noisily for the rights of girls and women has risks for being taken seriously in the mainstream. Even our potential next president isn't immune.

Hillary Clinton has been criticized for some more hawkish moves concerning issues like arming Syrian rebels and her support of intervention in Libya in 2011. But on the other hand, Clinton has likewise been criticized for her support of issues facing women and girls globally. As the New York Times explains:

As Mrs. Clinton's aides shape her legacy, one of their biggest frustrations has been explaining that the most publicized work of her tenure -- her emphasis on the rights of women and girls -- was not a safe or soft issue, but part of a broader strategy that strengthens national security. Mrs. Clinton may be the only diplomat, they say, who is criticized for being simultaneously too dovish and too hawkish.

Appearing at the same time to be "too dovish and too hawkish" strikes me as a complaint that could only be leveled against a woman. This simplistic view of a complex person combatting incredibly delicate issues affecting literally billions of people is an insult of the first order, both to Clinton and the girls and women she is trying to help.

Since when is defending more than half of the world's population from violence, poverty, and disease a "soft" issue? Since when is helping women achieve personal bodily autonomy a "nice-to-have?"

Speaking of, the recent Senate debate on equal pay portrayed fair pay as a "nice to have" for working American women. I wish. With economic realities thrown into the mix, equal pay becomes a much more complex issue, an issue that impacts women, men, whole families and economies. From equal pay, to federal funds for child care and the acknowledgement of the billions of dollars worth of work women do for free or for low wages, our country's inability to support the work women do slows us all down.

So I'm done with "women's issues." Improving what impacts women isn't a neat box of problems we can address when polls tell us we should, or an ad that can be tacked onto a politician's campaign plan. The issues that affect women are issues that affect humans -- all humans -- and are issues that impact nearly every other measure of development. When women have equality and autonomy, men's lives will improve as well. We just have to step back and be willing to see the forest.