1. What is the “capability approach” and why does the UN think it is useful?

I have a layperson’s understanding of what Amartya Sen means by capabilities, but his ideas are intriguing. The excellent UN Women report defines capabilities as “the freedom to be nourished, to be educated, to be healthy, to choose whom and when to marry, to freely decide on the number and spacing of children, and so on.” I like the concept because it judges the value of services like hospitals and schools in terms of how they contribute to women and girl’s total well-being and enlarging freedoms.

2. Do you think the Millennium Development Goals helped to enhance women’s “capabilities”?

The UN Millennium Development Report suggests progress–primary education enrollment for girls is now equal to that of boys and maternal mortality has been dramatically reduced in some countries. Also on the plus side, the MDGs help to focus our attention on measurable, time-bound goals—all of which directed valuable resources toward development. But many skeptics noted from the outset that the MDGs didn’t measure inequalities well or conveniently hid them in averages. For example, we should have looked at why some populations and groups, such as ethnic minorities and indigenous women, faired consistently worse than the national averages. The Beijing Platform for Action has a better analysis of the girl-child’s situation related to multiple inequalities.

3. Can you elaborate?

Part of the problem lies with the numbers game. You probably heard about the statistician who drowned in an average of one-half inch of water. You see, one end of the pool was over his head; the other end was nearly dry. Judging by the statistical average, he figured the pool was safe—but it wasn’t. So when we look at global averages, let alone national ones, we lose sight of where the “sticky” problems lie. We should be plotting the data by income groups, gender and geographical areas among other things. It seems obvious, but we often continue to miss point.

4. Why do you emphasize confidence along with capabilities?

Girls’ empowerment isn’t just about developing freedoms and capabilities. There is an inward journey that allows some girls to use their capabilities to make better decisions than others. Empowerment is a lot about understanding yourself and developing a positive identity. Girls may learn how to do this from a supportive upbringing at home, but they could also learn it at school, at temple, or through sports, music and other activities.

5. What can schools do?

Girls play traditional instruments

If teachers can encourage “grit” to help girls overcome setbacks and prepare them to be independent thinkers, that will lead to increased self-confidence. A “quality education” has to also help both boys and girls overcome negative gender stereotypes. I’m not sure we know how to do this for every girl in various cultures, but it is an important goal.

6. In 2015 the UN will commemorate 20 years after the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Why do you think we haven’t had an update—a fifth world conference?

When the Secretary-General announced his support for a fifth world conference on women, I couldn’t sleep for two days. An official UN world conference must end in a new policy document. That would mean reopening the debates on contentious issues like sex education for children and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. We certainly shouldn’t be afraid to have those debates. The problem is that unlike in 1995, the international women’s movement is poorly funded while the fundamentalist backlash has gained strength. We would have had a rolling back of progress after a lot of struggle and spent our precious resources with little gain. That is why we need to regroup, rethink, and refocus strategies. We also have discovered—upon rereading a very long document—that the Beijing Platform for Action, maybe like the UN Human Rights Charter, remains a golden standard policy document. I think all of us need to reread the document’s sections “Education and Training of Women” as well as “Women and Health.”

7. Do you agree that culture is a major obstacle for women and girls in claiming their right to health and education?

I think that UN agreements are often too negative about culture because so much has been made of harmful cultural practices like female genital mutilation and early marriage. We anthropologists understand culture as constantly evolving, with plenty of room for change. Whether you see culture as a liability or asset, it is important for the UN to be accurate about its worth.

Do you have a question for me? Please email