Monday, October 26, 2009
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: Knopf (September 8, 2009)
• Price: $27.95
• ISBN-10: 0307267148
• ISBN-13: 978-0307267146
This book is important. So important, in fact, that first reviews from reputable sources are calling it the most important book of the year, some even calling it the most important book of our time. Yes. It is.
Now and then we must pick up a book that awakens in us all the compassion, all the indignation, all the heart we need to make a difference in the world. And that’s the best part: each and everyone one of us can.
Nicholas Kristof may be a name you already recognize as a New York Times op-ed columnist. Both he and wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work in journalism. Kristof has won two Pulitzer Prizes, WuDunn shares one with Kristof for the work they have done together. WuDunn worked as business editor for the Times and foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. The two of them have already collaborated on two previous books. I dare say, none yet of such global reach as this one.
Half the Sky is a very readable collection of individual stories, interspersed with narrative by the authors for appropriate background. Very readable, yet simultaneously shattering. And, simultaneously, deeply inspiring. “Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb that pulls these stories of women throughout the world together into one great call for the emancipation of women in 21st-century slavery.
“When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls. We journalists weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball on this subject: Less than one percent of U.S. foreign aid is specifically targeted to women and girls.”
Kristof and WuDunn pick up the dropped ball in Half the Sky and toss it at the reader—at you. The stories here are about girls and women in Cambodia, in the Congo, in Thailand, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Burundi, Senegal, and many other parts of the world. Yes, wherever you may be, from your part of the world, too. If not always directly, then not as indirectly as you may think, because the sex trade and human trafficking has spread to the United States in alarming numbers and with alarming effect. Eastern Europe suffers from human trafficking, too, as it struggles with poverty. Witness the efforts of the pornography industry to make pornography mainstream. Humans have become wares up for sale, slavery today far outnumbering anything yet seen in human history.
The authors state: “107 million females are missing from the globe today… Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”
“The global statistics on the abuse of girls is 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 the wars of the twentieth century.
“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.”
But Kristof and WuDunn understand that it does little good to toss out numbers and statistics. Not like this just began yesterday. The horror of gender discrimination, of human trafficking and sex slavery, across the world has been ignored for a very, very long time. The way to bring this horror home to move hearts and begin the process of change is by giving these stories a face, a name, someone with whom we can identify. This could have been me. This might have been my daughter. And even with that false comfort, that it may not be you, or your daughter, the authors make sure by end of the book that we all understand that these women touch all our lives. “Countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized,” they remind us. “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.”
We read the stories of girls stolen from families who live in poverty. The lies told to unwitting parents are that their little girls, as young as eight years old, will be brought into the city and cared for, put to work there selling food or flowers or other such. Instead, these children and young women are thrown into brothels, were they are beaten, over and over again, into submission. Usually, they are also forced into drug addiction, effectively making them slaves of these addictions, so that even when they might have a chance to run, the agony of withdrawal keeps them coming back. And still they run. Corrupt police capture them, gang rape them (yes, police), and bring them back again. Or, an increasingly common tactic of revenge against women who escape is to toss acid into their faces until their living flesh melts away. A gouged eye will do just fine, too. Little girls, once beaten into submission, are locked into rooms with paying male customers (young virgins bring the highest price), to come out later, bloodied and raped. How many American tourists and business men have bragged about their trips to Thailand to enjoy all that “open” sex trade?
I, too, have at times wondered if one way of combating the abuse of girls and women into forced prostitution (an interesting phrase, implying that any woman in her right mind would willingly prostitute herself if she had other options available) by legalizing and so offering certain protections to women, might be at least a partial answer. The authors write:
“What policy should we pursue to try to eliminate that slavery? Originally, we sympathized with the view that a prohibition won’t work any better against prostitution today than it did against alcohol in America in the 1920s. Instead of trying fruitlessly to ban prostitution, we believed it would be preferable to legalize and regulate it.
“Over time, we’ve changed our minds. That legalize-and-regulate model simply hasn’t worked very well in countries where prostitution is often coerced… legal brothels ten to attract a parallel illegal business in young girls and forced prostitution. In contrast, there’s empirical evidence that crackdowns can succeed, when combined with social services such as job retraining and drug rehabilitation, and that’s the approach we’ve come to favor.”
People often point to the Netherlands as an example of a place where the sex trade has been legalized, but the authors peel back that rationalization and make an interesting comparison with Sweden, where the purchase of sexual services was criminalized in 1999. Men caught paying for sex are fined, imprisoned for up to six months. The prostitute, however, is not punished. In effect, this approach reflects the view, far more accurate, that the prostitute is not the criminal, but a victim of a crime. The “john,” however, is a victimizer, taking advantage of someone’s dire situation in life. Keeping in mind that studies show more than 90 percent of women engaging in prostitution or in pornography have been sexually molested prior to doing so, it is only logical to seek protection for those women and putting the crime on the shoulders where it belongs: on the man buying the service or buying or using pornography.
“A decade later, Sweden’s crackdown seems to have been more successful [than the Netherlands] in reducing trafficking and forced prostitution. The number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped by 41 percent in the first five years… and the price of sex dropped, too—a pretty good indication that demand was down… traffickers believe that trafficking girls into Sweden is no longer profitable and that girls should be taken to Holland instead… 81 percent of Swedes approved of the law.”
Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of the women in these situations to bring reality to the numbers and theories, but the overall message is one of empowerment for women. Their advice is not only to the girls and women directly in the line of fire, however. This message is for women everywhere. Empowerment and drawing the line of here and no further against any kind of gender discrimination, built upon the cornerstone of objectification of girls and women, begins with any female reading these lines. And, with any male who respects the opposite gender—and himself, enough to demand that women and girls be treated as human beings and not as objects for his pleasure.
“One of the reasons that so many women and girls are kidnapped, trafficked, raped, and otherwise abused is that they grin and bear it. Stoic docility—in particular, acceptance of any decree by a man—is drilled into girls in much of the world from the time they are babies, and so they often do as they are instructed, even when the instruction is to smile while being raped twenty times a day.
“This is not to blame the victims. There are good practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed. But the reality is that as long as women and girls allow themselves to be prostituted and beaten, the abuse will continue.”
This empowerment begins with education. There is good reason why in so many parts of the world, education is denied to girls and women. Thinking leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empowerment. Empowerment leads to change. “Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not entail docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.”
Here, the reader begins to understand, too. When these girls and women do stand up and demand justice, when they shout against their abusers to stop, it is imperative that we who live in more privilege echo their cries and add our own in support. “Easy for outsiders like us to say: We’re not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it’s imperative that outsiders champion her; we must also nurture institutions to protect such people. Sometimes we may even need to provide asylum for those whose lives are in danger. More broadly, the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education, and we can do far more to promote universal education in poor countries… There will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back.”
The stories of individual women who have done just that, mustering up more courage than most of us can even imagine, have made dramatic changes not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those living in their villages, towns, cities, even countries. The domino effect of this kind of empowerment cannot be overstated. These women are true heroes who inspire us all. Against unimaginable odds, some against their own families, against husbands who declared them untouchable after gang rapes, mothers who shunned them in favor of their sons, corrupt police who not only ignored their cries for help but alarmingly often gang raped these same women all over again, still these women rebelled and would not allow their spirits to be broken.
As the world is ripped apart by terrorism and war, women continue to become a weapon of war. When wars die down, domestic violence continues a silent war in many homes—and this is a growing epidemic in American homes, too.
“Surveys suggest that about one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and warm combined. A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend.”
The authors ask little, really, of their readers. Letter-writing campaigns, for instance, empower those whose voices are drowned out by their abusers. Petitions get noticed. Even, I like to think, writing a book review such as this one can help in raising awareness (I have suggested reading Half the Sky to my women’s book club, and I look forward to our group discussions). While monetary donations can make a dramatic difference—and there is list of verified charities in the back of the book—the authors point out that the American penchant to change unjust laws is too often only a beginning to creating change. Changing a culture is far more important, because traditions over many generations can hold very firm, even when they are made illegal. Sexism and misogyny is rampant worldwide, and when such attitudes are deeply ingrained in a culture, even the women participate. Infanticide of female babies is often at the hands of mothers, and women who have been abused themselves often become the abusers of the next generation of girls. Knowing nothing else, minds washed of rational thinking, accepting a view of themselves as less than human out of ignorance, such victims become victimizers, and the only way to stop this vicious cycle is stop wrong thinking—by education. And not just in other places. Education at home, too.
“One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Study abroad programs tend to consist of herds of students visiting Oxford or Florence or Paris. We believe that universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world.”
A current effort by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is to raise awareness and fight mass rape of girls and women as a weapon of war. In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a weapon of war. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, in addressing rape being used as a war tactic, said, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”
“The world capital of rape is eastern Congo. Militias consider it risky to engage in firefights with other gunmen, so instead they assault civilians. They discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations is to conduct rapes of stunning brutality. Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives of bayonets, or else they fire their guns into women’s vaginas… soldiers raped a three-year-old girl and then fired their guns into her. When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair. The little girl’s grief-stricken father then committed suicide.”
According to various counts done by the United Nations, about three quarters of the women in the Congo have been raped. By “women,” it should be made clear, the authors include girls as young as six years old, and sometimes even younger. Considering that many of the Congolese troops are young boys, one can only imagine the damage done on a cultural level in terms of how such males will forever after view females, their own future wives and daughters.
One of the physical ailments these raped girls and women suffer is called a fistula. This is a condition of internal organ damage that can lead to waste freely spilling out, or problems in childbirth that often lead to death. The authors describe this common result of rape, and they also discuss female genital mutilation, the latter often being a result of long held tradition in some cultures. In short, this is a process of cutting genitals of girls, usually with unsanitary knives, always without anesthesia of any kind. The cultural basis of this cruel practice is to control a woman’s sexuality. The idea is basically that if a woman cannot feel sexual pleasure, she is more likely not to stray from her future husband. The result of this practice is often lifelong injury and scarring. Complications can be fistulas, infections, and other medical conditions that can be crippling if not fatal. Simply getting laws on the books to make such practices illegal, however, do little to change tradition held through many generations. Once again, the answer can be in raising awareness, educating women that such barbaric practices are not acceptable, are not a “cultural tradition” to uphold, but a monstrous practice that falls into human rights abuse.
Kristof and WuDunn remind us as we read through these stories and their surrounding narrative: “We’re wary of taking the American women’s movement as a model, because if the international effort is dubbed a ‘women’s issue,’ then it will already have failed. The unfortunate reality is that women’s issues are marginalized, and in any case sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women’s issue than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed.”
Solutions to these problems begin with viewing women fully as human beings. Not a gender to be used and abused, overpowered and beaten down, but as human beings with full rights to be treated as such. The authors write about the changes that can, and have, come about where women are given equal rights, including the right to own property, the right to have determination over their own bodies, the right to basic health care, the right to have a voice over their own lives. The reason they give for empowering women as a means to ease, or even eliminate world poverty, is an illustration of how men have used donated funds. According to studies, the top three expenditures for money donated to men in developing countries have been alcohol, prostitutes, and candy. Whereas when women have been given money, they have used it for medical care, for food to feed their families, and for education. Uplifting stories include those of women who were once beaten by their husbands, but were given loans of sometimes no more than fifty dollars, enabling them to completely transform their lives. The results have been thriving new family businesses that would employ others, helping not only one family, but the entire town in which that family lives.
The book concludes with chapters titled, “What You Can Do,” and the answers are stunningly simple. A little can have ripple effects that go a long, long way. I personally decided, after exploring online various charities the authors recommend, to sign up with Women Helping Women International, donating $27 on a monthly basis to a woman who has survived multiple gang rapes and been ostracized by her family and village. But the authors remind us that money isn’t always necessary. Voicing support, volunteering, your own education on these matters, can all add up a transformative movement with global outreach.
“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings. The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction. Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete—and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”
See http://www.halftheskymovement.org/ to learn more, to do more.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet
Posted by Zinta Aistars