A Cow for Change? I’ll Buy!

Motivating and inspirational commercials litter the Internet commanding the viewer to donate money to buy a cow or a chicken or a goat. These cows or chickens or goats will be given to young girls in Third World countries to allow them to establish independent, economic security. As the commercials pronounce, giving animals to girls provides political security and equality, which will allow them to grow into powerful businesswomen that will pay their knowledge forward to the next generation of young girls in their villages and hometowns.

The organizations that run such commercials tend to be centered in Western countries like the United Kingdom, the U.S., or France. Third-wave feminism, stemming from the former countries, encompasses the belief that equality for women should not only be improving in Western countries, but also in developing countries where women are the most severely disadvantaged. The advent of these beliefs in contemporary feminist dialogue has spurred on Western non-profits and organizations to invest in improving women’s empowerment in Third World countries. The newly focused non-profits believe that what works in Western countries to empower women will also work in other, developing countries. Of course if a girl has the chance to own a cow, she can sell the milk, save the money made, go to school, contribute to society and improve the status of women in her culture. Give a girl equal opportunity in the West, and you give her a chance to really compete. However, this formula is not always so simplistic, and turning a blind eye to cultural complexities can stand in the way of creating significant change.

What the Third-Wave feminism sometimes fails to understand is the cultural background of the places where they send the cows or chickens or goats. Many times the feminist organizations do not research whether the community will even accept the girls when selling their products made from their animals. A girl in a faraway Third World country, upon receiving a cow from a Western non-profit, seeks to sell its milk at the local market near her tiny village for money to give her impoverished family. When she arrives at the market with her bottles of milk and cow, she is met with disdain and anger. Most villagers refuse to buy from her and she does not end up making any money. At the end of the day a self-entitled elder forcibly seizes her cow proclaiming that women cannot and should not own property. This girl does not gain empowerment, only a lack of will and a continuation of poverty. If the penultimate goal of these organizations is exclusively to give cows away, then they will miss the opportunity to improve the lives of women. In fact, at times, the organizations can make life worse for the girls by inducing isolation and disapproval from the rest of the village or town.


(Bo Kage Carlson – flickr)

In modern day feminism, respect and understanding of other cultures needs to be foundational. No improvement in the lives of women around the world will sustain if the goal of feminism includes hegemonic ideologies of empowerment. It is not enough simply to donate money for the purchase of cows. Instead, let’s put the focus on developing initiatives that target the root of the suppression of women and not only a side effect of such. Let’s actually research how the money given to encourage women affects the community, and not be satisfied with giving money just to say we have.

For more information check out Under Western Eyes by Chandra Mohanty


Sammi Pitz is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be contacted at sjpitz@wustl.edu

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