Friday, January 27, 2012

Half the Sky

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn 2009

IQ "In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world." pg. xvii

A call to arms to end violence against women and to educate women because, as the Chinese proverb says, "women hold up half the sky". The point these authors make throughout the book, is how can a country flourish without drawing on half of its resources and tapping into women's potential? The issues discussed are dangers to women's reproductive and prenatal health, rape, sexual slavery and lack of education for women. The issues are explained, courageous women are profiled, organizations making a difference are spotlighted and everyday solutions are provided for readers around the world.

I am a sucker for these sort of books, real life tales that both depress and inspire. I enjoy reading these kind of non-fiction books because while all non fiction books teach me something new, I like that these books are told in narrative format, with explanations and history lessons smoothly interspersed. This book literally made me sick to my stomach, even though that is not the point of the book. In one incident in eastern Congo, the Congolese militias use rape as a weapon of war. "In one instance, soldiers raped a three-year old girl and their fired their guns into her." All I could think when I read that was 'oh my god.' The story continues "When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair. The little girl's grief-stricken father then committed suicide." (pg. 84). I do not share the story for the sake of pity, rather I want those two sentences to move people the same way it moved me. While I was reading this book I was infuriated. People not only confuse me, they make me sick, this book really brings home how cruel we humans can be to each other. It's not pretty, it's not pleasant, but it is the truth and it needs to be spread. The book never takes on a self-important tone or becomes too difficult to follow, instead it engages the reader by posing questions, sharing stories, and expanding on shocking statistics (as opposed to simply listing depressing statistics which doesn't do much more than temporarily shock someone).

The most fascinating aspect of this book is when it discusses the importance of Americans not trying to solve the problems of developing countries, but rather provide resources to people within that country so that they can solve their own problems. This idea has slowly been repeated by many but Half the Sky goes a step further in showing how sometimes Americans' ideas of progress may differ from the developing country's idea of progress. We may have different results in mind. Take the organization Tostan, "Tostan sometimes angers feminists for its cautious approach and for its reluctance to use the word 'mutilation' or even say that it is fighting against genital cutting. Instead, it relentlessly tries to stay positive, preparing people to make their own decisions. The curriculum includes a non judgemental discussion of human rights and health issues related to cutting but it never advises parents to stop cutting their daughters. Still, the program broke a taboo by discussing cutting. And once women thought about it and realized that cutting wasn't universal, they began to worry about the health risks" (pg. 226). When I first read about the mission of Tostan even I was baffled at how they didn't openly speak out against genital cutting. But as the authors explain the history of this horrific tradition and why more often than not, its mothers who do this to their daughters, understanding dawned. This organization instead of trying to push their own agenda, listens to the African women it is trying to help and places heavy emphasis on their respective culture. If all non profits did that perhaps we could actually make a difference....

Half the Sky is a siren's song sans the bad result, only good can come out of you heeding the call of this book. There is no way you can read this book without first being heartsick and then resolved to answer the call for action. Women's rights is deemed to be the issue of our generation and while some may debate that, what is not debatable is that we cannot continue to ignore the plight of women around the world. We have to make up for lost time whether by donating to non profits run by native changemakers, providing microfinance loans (the book explains in great detail as to why it is better to loan money to women than men in the developing world), volunteering or a host of other methods. The authors encourage young Americans to travel abroad and volunteer in a hospital, school, etc. run by natives of the respective country or mostly run by the native people. They argue (and I would agree) that this work will have more of an impact on the youth and give them a better understanding of the problems, possible solutions and the culture of the developing country. It may be a shock, but often, the shock factor is the best way to motivate change. This is a book that I think not only everyone should read, but everyone should buy. I certainly intend to, it's a fantastic resource.

Disclosure: From library

*Read in 2011