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A Handbook for Hope

By (December 1, 2009) One Comment

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Knopf, 2009

Celebrities like George Clooney, Melinda Gates and Angelina Jolie hail Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book Half the Sky as a passionate plea for women. When I attended a book signing with the authors, clutching my own copy of Half the Sky, I felt as giddy as a groupie at a ‘tween concert. Attendee after attendee jubilantly waited in line and tentatively yet enthusiastically asked for both authors’ autographs, squealing after speaking with them. One woman even asked them for a job. Usually, a public figure garners this kind of attention by starring on the silver screen or singing on the radio, not advocating for gender equity and women’s rights. These two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists travel the country, championing human rights and passionately talking about the women and girls whose stories have irrevocably altered their lives.

Half the Sky is a triumphant manifesto, a call to change perceptions of global poverty, education, human trafficking, rape, maternal mortality and the effect all of this has on women. As a result of social systems mired in misogyny (commingled with a lack of education), women in many countries and cultures must contend with a lack of power. Unleashing this power, Kristof and WuDunn assert, is vital not only to lifting women to an equal status with men but also in stimulating global economies:

So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.

Contrary to what some people purport, Kristof and WuDunn argue that women are not a problem but rather a solution. Some individuals assert that violence to women, sexual assault and human trafficking are “women’s problems” that only involve and therefore only concern women. While women face the negative consequences of gender stratification, human rights violations such as these affect everyone. The authors discuss the ramifications of what they call the “girl effect,” how increasing education for women leads to them getting jobs, delaying marriage and reducing the number of children, all the while infusing the economy with additional funds and labor. Their point is that gender is not an issue that only affects women, but rather all of society.

The authors weave tales throughout their data. The book abounds with novelistic descriptions of women’s clothing, skin tone and hair color – an effective tactic in making resistant readers more receptive, perhaps more willing to take action. Much more effective than raw data, I realized as I read. The goal here is to make sure the numbers don’t dehumanize – the tale-telling works to that end. Each chapter tells the story of one or two women (or girls) and their plight. Following each chapter is a corresponding appendix of individuals and organizations making a difference with that kind of plight. In a time when people feel overwhelmed by the travesties and injustices in the world, it’s refreshing to read tangible evidence of what one person can do to make a difference. I’m personally engaged with this subject, yet I often feel there are simply too many problems to tackle in the world – I don’t know where to begin. It is this lack of knowledge and sense of hopelessness that can lead one to feel powerless. But just as the women in the book are not solely victims but rather survivors and agents of change, Kristof and WuDunn compel you to realize that you yourself are not powerless – that there is a great deal you can do. They even include a final chapter with the “four steps you can take in the next ten minutes” for impatient readers such as myself.

Half the Sky contains compelling argument after argument. To cite one notorious topic, Kristof and WuDunn confront the liberal myth that prostitution is a voluntary vocation for women. As a reproductive rights advocate, I believe that a woman’s body should be her legal and personal domain. Yet I viewed the issues from my Eurocentric stance; while some prostitutes in the U.S., China and Japan enter the profession willingly, in other societies, women and girls are often forced into prostitution. As the authors point out, “Paradoxically, it is the countries with the most straitlaced and sexually conservative societies, such as India, Pakistan, an Iran, that have disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitutes.” In these societies, traffickers coerce, beat and rape women into submission. Today, 3 million women and girls are forced into prostitution – more than were forced into African slavery during the 19th century. Yet in many countries, India for example, prostitution remains illegal, despite the flourishing red-light district:

Anybody can walk through Sonagachi in the evening and see the underage girls. Nick toured Sonagachi several times, entering the brothels seemingly as a potential customer. He saw many young girls but wasn’t allowed to take them off the premises; presumably for fear that they would flee. And because they spoke only Bengali, Nepali, or Hindi, and he speaks none of those languages, he couldn’t interview them. But Anup Patel, a Hindi-speaking medical student at Yale University, conducted research on condom use in Kolkata [in India] in 2005. He found that not only is the price of sex in Sonagachi negotiated between the customer and the brothel owner (rather than with the girl herself), but the customer can pay the brothel owner a few extra rupees for the right to not use a condom. The girl has no say in that.

Kristof and WuDunn also argue that “women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values, just as men do.” These reasons prompt them to advocate not for more laws but to change people’s views. Education is their solution. Due to its prevalence, rape has been declared a “weapon of war” by the United Nations. “Rape becomes a tool of war in conservative societies precisely because female sexuality is so sacred,” our authors write, “Mass rape is as effective as slaughtering people, yet it doesn’t leave corpses that lead to human rights prosecutions.” Due to fistulas, caused by rape or obstructed labor, and lack of medical care during childbirth, “childbirth remains almost as deadly as ever, with one maternal death every minute.” These travesties should be on the front page of newspapers and headlining the nightly news – but they happen to impoverished women in faraway nations, who seem unimportant on the world stage. Half the Sky attempts to give them the spotlight they need to save their lives.

photo by Beatrice de Gea from the New York Times

Kristof and WuDunn provide fascinating and frightening research and data, but it’s their stories of young women that horrified and haunted me. Dina, a Congolese girl, was raped and left for dead:

All the local residents knew that there were soldiers from the Hutu Interahamwe militia in the area, so Dina was fearful whenever she went out to farm the crops. But the alternative was to starve. One day, because of the danger, Dina cut short her work in her bean field and headed back to town well before sunset. As she was walking home, five Hutu militia members surrounded her. They had guns and knives and forced her to the ground. One of them was carrying a stick. “If you cry out, we will kill you,” one of them told Dina. So she kept quiet as, one by one, the five men raped her. Then they held her down as one of them shoved the stick inside her. When Dina didn’t come home her father and friends bravely went out to the fields, and there they found her, half dead in the grass. They covered her and took her back to her home. There was a health center in Kindu [in eastern Congo] but Dina’s family couldn’t afford to take her there to be treated, so she was cared for only at home. She lay paralyzed in her bed, unable to walk. The stick had broken into her bladder and rectum causing a fistula, or hole, in the tissues. As a result, urine and feces trickled constantly through her vagina and down her legs. These injuries, rectovaginal and vesicovaginal fistulas, are common in Congo because of sexual violence.

Luckily, Dina’s family contacted HEAL Africa, a hospital in eastern Congo. The hospital arranged for a missionary plane to transport Dina, where she underwent surgery to fix her fistula. The book contains other tales of women, like Dina, surviving their tragedies and even triumphing over them. Srey Neth, a Cambodian prostitute whose freedom Nicholas Kristof bought in Cambodia, who was addicted to methamphetamines and returned to her brothel to get a fix before finally escaping the life. Usha Narayane, a Dalit woman in India who risked her own life by standing up to the local mobster who raped and slaughtered civilians and terrorized her town. Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who turned her tragedy of rape into a triumph by opening her own school.

All of these stories are graphic and heart-wrenching. Yet, I never felt overwhelmed by depression for these women, since Kristof and WuDunn make it clear they didn’t let their circumstances defeat them. They not only survived, they thrived by opening hospitals, going back to school, starting their own non-profits or advocating for other women in their communities. But thousands upon thousands of young women in similar circumstances are not so fortunate. Kristof and WuDunn are not naïve; they know the realities of poverty, lack of education, abuse and war that many women confront on a daily basis. They provide the numbers of women who are killed or kidnapped: that every year, “2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination,” or that “girls in India from one to five years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys the same age,” or that “somewhere in the world, once every minute” a woman dies in childbirth. Yet the authors yearn for their audience to learn of the best possible outcomes, to know that hope exists. In turn, they strive for this optimism to motivate readers to give charitably and find solutions. “Once people see that there are solutions, they will be more willing to help in myriad other ways.”

After hearing all of the travails women face around the globe, many people have started non-profits and NGOs to combat these issues. Aid groups possess the best of intentions, yet Kristof and WuDunn advise us that citizens may perceive aid workers as arrogant and patronizing when they enter another country or society and attempt to liberate people and tell them how to“fix” their problems:

Westerners sometimes feel sorry for Muslim women in a way that leaves them uncomfortable, even angry. When Nick quizzed a group of female Saudi doctors and nurses in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia] about women’s rights, they bristled. “Why do foreigners always ask about clothing?” one woman doctor asked. “Why does it matter so much what we wear? Of all the issues in the world, is that really so important?” Another said, “You think we’re victims, because we cover our hair and wear modest clothing. But we think that it’s Western women who are repressed because they have to show their bodies – even go through surgery to change their bodies – to please men.” A third doctor saw that Nick was taken aback at the scolding, and she tried to explain the indignation. “Look, when we’re among ourselves, of course we complain about the rules,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that we can’t drive. But these are our problems, not yours. We don’t want anybody fighting for us – and we certainly don’t want anybody feeling sorry for us.” Americans not only come across as patronizing but also often miss the complexity of gender roles in the Islamic world.

It’s this colonial attitude that people find offensive, and this lack of understanding is one of the reasons foreign aid so often doesn’t work. In Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid, she advocates the end of foreign aid to Africa because it only increases corruption and a lack of independence for its citizens. At the very least, if you want to provide aid, you must assist people on their own terms. Kristof and WuDunn want readers to support women in other societies by funding their organizations. When discussing dispatched aid to Afghanistan, they tell the story of Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan woman who runs the Afghan Institute of Learning:

Short and stout, her hair bundled in a scarf, waving greetings to one person while bantering in rapid-fire English with another, Sakena is perpetually in motion. Perhaps the reason fundamentalists haven’t silenced her yet is that she herself is an Afghan Muslim, less threatening than an outsider. American organizations would have accomplished much more if they had financed and supported Sakena, rather than dispatching their own representatives to Kabul. That’s generally true: The best role for Americans who want to help Muslim women isn’t holding the microphone at the front of the rally but writing the checks and carrying the bags in the back.

Solutions become more palatable, Kristof and WuDunn have seen, when coming from someone within a society who knows the customs. Their message is simple: the U.S. can fund-raise and be champions for women in other nations – but those women must lead the fight themselves.

Half the Sky discusses these and many other aspects of the gender debate, while only giving brief attention to the topic of women in politics. As someone who works in an academic institution coordinating an initiative that trains women to run for political office, I know the importance of women’s role in public office. Women politicians prioritize policy issues and vote differently than men. When women sit at the table, women’s issues are given more consideration and more funding. Women introduce more legislation on issues such as reproductive health, children, and equal pay. While they briefly discuss quotas for women, I was surprised that Kristof and WuDunn don’t give greater attention to the importance of women in political office. They do discuss MIT Professor Esther Duflo’s work on poverty and development, for which she is most known, as well as the results of her first two studies on gender quotas for women in India. Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge that “an Indian-style quota of women officeholders seems to break down gender barriers so that afterward the political system becomes more democratic and open.” They do not however, mention Duflo’s latest research which gives greater credence to that conclusion; the first study of its kind to convey the validity of quotas on such a large scale. Duflo recently co-authored, along with Harvard Professor Rohini Pande and others, a groundbreaking study analyzing the impact of gender quotas for women in village councils in India. In the newly published study, Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?, the researchers examined the impact of exposure to women leaders on electoral outcomes, voter attitudes, perceptions of leader effectiveness and gender stereotypes. Through their surveys and interviews, they concluded that exposure to a female chief councilor in a reserved seat improves perceptions of female leader effectiveness and weakens stereotypes about gender roles in public and domestic spheres. Once voters’ opinions of female candidates improve, more female candidates enter the political field in subsequent election cycles. Giving voters a chance to see the effectiveness of women leaders improves women’s access to political office. Kristof and WuDunn also fail to mention Assistant Professor Mona Lena Krook’s pivotal work on quotas. In her newly published book, Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide, she explores gender quotas and reserved seats for women on a global scale and argues for the necessity of quotas in obtaining equal representation in parliamentary governments. For women to be empowered, their concerns need to be voiced. They need to be making the decisions on policy issues. It’s a serious gap in an otherwise comprehensive book.

It’s impossible for me to read a book on social justice without thinking of Samantha Power’s impressive A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. It opened my eyes to the horrors of genocide and to the rare voices in American politics pushing for stronger foreign policies and American intervention involving human rights atrocities, such as the genocides in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia, and protection of victimized groups. Yet I found myself compelled to put it down and step away from the tragic tales of atrocities. The deluge of data washed over me, wave after wave crushing my hope; how could I possibly make a difference in reducing genocide? Kristof and WuDunn are keenly aware of this anesthetizing effect:

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all of the battles 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.

In their book, they refer to studies in which people donated more money to philanthropic causes when they heard a story about an individual, rather than hearing facts and figures. Just as Power provides her platform for policy implementation in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Kristof and WuDunn outline their ideas for systemic solutions, including “campaigning for funding girls’ education,” giving microcredit loans to women, eradicating fistulas, and building “broad coalitions” in the “new emancipation movement to empower women.”

Half the Sky, it must be said, is neither as academic nor as eloquent as it could have been. There are no footnotes (only a much briefer end-notes section), and the narrative is plagued with passive writing. The authors would argue, rightly, that their anecdotal tone helps to make their book accessible to a larger audience. An academic study would not have reached the same number of people nor had the same impact. They launched a Half the Sky website as a supplement to the book to further engage their audience. And they’re right: people are moved by individual stories, and Kristof and WuDunn above all want to motivate their readers to action. The beauty of their book is that they don’t victimize women; rather than depleting optimism, this strategy fuels hope. As such, you become a fellow champion in the cause of gender and women’s rights. A book can be forgiven many minor flaws if it succeeds at that as well as this one does.

Megan Kearns
lives in Boston and works at Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program.

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