Monday, January 18, 2010
Half The Sky : Your New Required Reading
The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine "gendercide" in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.
-Half The Sky
There is a reason Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity has been on the best seller list for a while now. Authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are the first married couple to ever win a Pulitzer Prize together (for their coverage of the Tienanmen Square Protests), and boy do they pull out all their skills for this one. Nicholas Kristof is a multi prize winning NY Times journalist known for being both the moral compass and "Indiana Jones of our generation of journalists" according to wikipedia. Sheryl WuDunn, the first Asian American to win a Pulitzer, is an investment advisor, with a focus on philanthropy. She's worked as a journalist and editor for the NY Times as well as a private wealth investor and specialist in alternative energy.
You can tell this powercouple researched the best way to write this book almost as much as they researched the actual material it contains - Half the Sky combines personal tales of both oppression and opportunity with statistics, facts, and truth about what methods of aid help women and which just don't work. By peppering the book with stories of women they met on their travels and stayed in touch with, the reader can actually connect with the lives of women in China, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Cameroon, and many more places. The stories are actually interesting too, I spent a lot of time crying while listening to the audio version at work (yea, I've just come to except that), because of women whose stories are so far beyond the threshold of pain and suffering that I could imagine. Yet, the book manages to never leave you at that point, but consistently shows what specific tactics work to turn these stories around and help the women in leading themselves out of abuse and poverty.
Chapters include topics such as sex slavery and prostitution, the power in speaking up, rape, shame and honor, maternal mortality, Islam and misogyny, education, genital cutting, micro credit, and aid programs that actually work. I enjoyed the unpredictability of Kristof and WuDunn's approach to each of these topics- they weren't always what you thought they would be. For instance, they explain the ways Islam itself isn't as misogynist as you might think and while constantly promoting education they acknowledge that sometimes introducing television to small villages can do wonders for encouraging women to understand their basic human rights. I learned a lot about issues like sex slavery, and how often times our emancipated western views lead us to think of it more as prostitution, when such a small amount of 3rd world prostitutes were allowed to make the decision for themselves. Also simple things, like the US Congress asking in 2000 for all countries to report their statistics on prostitution, helped extensively in getting some of the worst countries to crack down, therefore decreasing underage prostitution and AIDS.
One of the interesting approaches they took to the topic was looking at women's emancipation in an economic sense. For instance in China where women a few generations ago bound their feet and were at times named Daughter 1 or Bring A Younger Brother 2. China decided to integrate women into factory work and now women outnumber men in many sections of the workforce and 5 of the 6 richest self made women in the world are Chinese. While they still have far to go with work conditions, the country's economy has grown incredibly and women are now seen as valuable assets, and less frequently drowned in the river to make room for a son. There is also vast proof that by providing women in developing countries with micro loans, you are actually helping the whole community. When you empower women you raise economic productivity as well as health, nutrition, and education, and you decrease infant and maternal mortality as well as terrorism. WuDunn's economic prowess is enlightening and truthful in these segments. She explains that when a village or a country works to support its women, their economy almost always grows. However, she is bluntly honest in acknowledging that better off countries who lend aid may have to take a hit themselves. Yet, this is one of my favorite elements of the book. I get weary of those who constantly validate their cause with saying that it will all work out for the better of everyone - sometimes its just the right decision and you won't be like Tom's Shoes and make a huge profit off the cause. But its still the right choice. They name Britain in the book for being the leader of the Abolitionist movement, as far as countries go. While they took the hit and lost money for decades on their decision to stop slave trafficking Africans , it was still the right decision.
Half The Sky combines tactics that we can do personally- both giving of our money and time as well as three things they would like to see the US Government do - making the emancipation of women and girls a priority.
1. Spend 10 billion over 5 years to educate girls, focusing on Africa but also prodding Asia and the Middle East. This would narrow the education gap by doing such simple things as building schools or just supplying uniforms or sanitary napkins to girls so they could stay in school. These programs would be measured carefully to find which showed the most progress and should be continued.
2. Iodize salt - Supporting the micro nutrient initiative. Iodizing salt would prevent the loss of up to 10 IQ points in still developing fetuses. Female fetuses are especially effected by the lack of iodized salt. Apparently with this method of help you can get "more bang for the buck than almost any other form of aid."
3. A 12 year 1.6 billion dollar initiative to eradicate obstetric fistulas. This issue that both conservatives and liberals could get behind would lay the groundwork for a maternal health overhaul.
Those might seem like expensive projects but consider this : The World Health Organization estimates that 536,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth each year. Yet, as Americans the amount we spend on maternal health is less than one twentieth of one percent of what we spend on our military. We spend so much on foreign aid, why not spend it on programs that would actually work. Or better yet, follow all these programs and see which ones work the best and where to put more money. Kristof and WuDunn make the point that this is no more a "women's issue" than slavery was a Black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are humanitarian issues. Providing aid isn't the answer itself but it is the oil in the machine that will turn these issues around. Carolyn See who reviewed Half The Sky for The Washington Post said that it was probably the most important book she'll ever review. I think it probably is for me too, and I really strongly recommend reading it, I promise it won't feel like homework.
Here are some really adorable photos of the Chikumbuso Project girls in Ng' ombe, Zambia. The uniforms they are wearing are from my hometown, my awesome middle school gym teacher sent the uniforms we used to wear for basketball or soccer to Chikumbuso.