Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

I've been wanting to put together a review of the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

In May 2011, Kristof came to Kalamazoo, and spoke at Kalamazoo College. I missed this event (to my regret), but later read in the Gazette about his presentation. I saved that article, and eventually came across it again, while straightening the disaster that is my office. I finally was motivated enough to find and read a copy of "Half the Sky."

It is a great book, and I strongly recommend it.

Kristof and WuDunn present, bluntly and objectively, examples of oppressed women: young girls who are kidnapped and sold to brothels; women who are controlled by rape and beatings; honor killings; deaths in childbirth (one death every minute); campaigns that eliminate reproductive health funding; gender discrimination; lack of education.

The stories they share are shocking. (Frankly, if I were trying to make up stories to emphasize a point, I wouldn't come up with these - I'd be afraid no one would believe them.) They take a general problem, and link it to a specific individual, with a name. Du'a Aswad dies in an honor killing, murdered by a crowd of one thousand men. Prudence Lemokouno dies in childbirth, unable to receive  necessary medical treatment. Meena Hasina, age 12, is forced to work in a brothel.

The authors go on to share solutions, and to discuss what works, and what doesn't work. They do not inflate statistics, or claim success where none exists. But they do offer hope that oppression can be lifted.

They point out unexpected consequences. For instance,
in 1993, Senator Tom Harkin wanted to help Bangladeshi girls laboring in sweatshops, so he introduced legislation that would have banned imports made by workers under the age of fourteen. Bangladeshi factories promptly fired tens of thousands of these young girls,  and many of them ended up in brothels and are presumably now dead of AIDS" (p. 17).
In another example, funds were cut off to Marie Stopes International, because this group was helping to provide abortions in China.
One might have understood cutting funds to the China program, but slashing funds for the consortium in Africa was abhorrent.

The funding cut forced Marie Stopes to drop a planned outreach program to help Somali and Rwandan refugees. It had to close two clinics in Kenya and to lay off eighty doctors and nurses. . . "These were clinics focusing on the poorest, the marginalized, in the slums" (p. 131-132).
The authors write about the progress of women in China; indeed, they claim that "no country has made as much progress in improving the status of women as China has" (p. 208). And they point out something - another unexpected consequence - that surprised me, and has made me rethink some of my ideas regarding imports:
Implicit in what we're saying about China is something that sounds shocking to many Americans: Sweatshops have given women a boost. Americans mostly hear about the iniquities of garment factories, and they are real - the forced overtime, the sexual harassment, the dangerous conditions. Yet women and girls still stream to such factories because they're preferable to the alternative of hoeing fields all day back in a village. In most poor countries, women don't have many job options. In agriculture, for example, women typically aren't as strong as men and thus are paid less. Yet in the manufacturing world, it's the opposite. The factories prefer young women, perhaps because they're more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rise of manufacturing has generally raised the opportunities and status of women (p. 210).
The last chapters of the book suggest things that ordinary people like you and me can do, to help in this cause. They reiterate the benefits of educating girls, and of funding health programs. They also reiterate broader principles, such as
American feminism must become less parochial, so that it is every bit as concerned with sex slavery in Asia as with Title IX sports programs in Illinois. . . Likewise, Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses (p. 244).
I think reading this book is a very good place to start.

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