#PledgeForParity But Do Not Erase Women's Differences

We recently commemorated the International Women's Day and with March being Women's History Month additional celebrations of women continue.

However, as we recognize women as a group that has been systematically victimized, we must also attend to the differences among women that position some of us at additional loci of oppression due to social class, race, ability, geographical location, and/or religion.

One of the ways in which a commonality is established across different women and girls is by reducing them to economic metrics -- as workers/labor, consumers, or a potential market.

Consider the 2016 International Women's Day website, which accurately notes: "Worldwide, women continue to contribute to social, economic, cultural and political achievement." It calls for us to take a pledge "to help women and girls achieve their ambitions" and "respect and value difference."

Yet, the campaign unabashedly states that parity is important because it is "an economic imperative;" because "women are the largest emerging market in the world;" because "more equality" leads to "higher GDP."

This is not surprising. The economization of women and girls is not a new phenomenon, particularly as it relates to the global South. In fact, the World Bank in its 2012 World Development Report argues for investing in girls' education because it is "smart economics." Similarly, the SPRING Initiative, a public-private partnership led by USAID that seeks to "accelerate the economic empowerment of girls" in developing nations, grounds its work in the fact that "the world's adolescent girls... [are] a massively underserved market."

It seems as we have discovered a new world to conquer; a new market to colonize and extract value from. I believe that it is time that we push back against this reduction of women's and girls' labor, bodies, and rights to economic idioms.

The first step we can take is to truly listen to, and recognize, women's and girls' diverse investments, commitments and desires. This demands an empathetic engagement, one that is open to different performances of womanhood and girlhood that might evade our own understandings of what it means to be a successful woman or girl.

Indeed, there exist peoples and communities whose visions of a "good life" may not align with ours. My research with women and girls in Pakistan, for instance, highlights women who view waged-work not as a "choice" or "right" but as a form of compulsion in the context of an extremely precarious and exploitative work environment.

Similarly, the girls I worked with called for strengthening local systems of support, including faith-based governance bodies, councils and civil society organizations. These are often the same male-dominated organizations that to our western eyes seem patriarchal and oppressive. The girls, however, found them most supportive and generative, especially in the absence of social services provided by the state.

Such evidence calls for engaging in women's development on the beneficiaries' own terms, and sometimes even resisting the globalizing norms that have congealed into "best practices" or dominant images of what a successful femininity looks like. That is precisely what the outcome of empathetic listening should be.

Indeed, shouldn't we pause when diverse voices are reduced to stable, homogenous narratives? How can women and girls from radically different geographical locations, histories and political, economic and social environments demand the same version of "good life"?

In celebrating women this month let us ensure that our attempt to discover commonality across national, ethnic and religious boundaries does not erase our differences. A global sisterhood should not make invisible our different voices and desires.

In fact, it is precisely by recognizing this plurality of voices, different investments, and commitments that we can truly enact unity.

The academic articles that inform this piece are available here and here.