Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women


(system) #1

On one page there's a photograph of a woman who's face has been partly erased. It's Naeema Azar, a real estate agent who was burned with acid by her ex-husband. She's pictured with her 12-year-old son, who now leads her everywhere.

But on another page is Sunitha Krishnan from India, with children in her shelter. After a gang-rape that she couldn't report to the police (women who do so may be raped by the police as well) and that she was stigmatized for in her community, Sunitha became a social entrepreneur who listened to what prostitutes said they wanted: education for their children. She started a school in a former brothel, opened shelters, and started to organize rescues.

Naeema and Sunitha are found in the pages of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage Paperback, 2010) a book that has become an admired best-seller for good reason. As journalists, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (a married — and Pulitzer-prize-winning — couple) tell powerful stories with a superb command of prose; as humanitarians, they talk about powerful topics and propose responses with an inspiring command of data, honesty, influencing forces, and potential for change.

They'll tell a story that'll leave you with nightmares and then save you by telling another story, this one about a real person who's making a difference right now. They'll roll out data from several projects, discuss the weak spots in the data, and sum it up with key points that can be learned from the data regardless of its weaknesses — and what we need to do with what we learn.

Indeed, Half the Sky is a call to action through and through. Over and over again it asks readers not only to care, but also to understand, to grapple with the complexity of life and change and cruelty and hope, and choose a method of involvement that will have high potential to make genuinely positive change.

Exploring Complicated Issues Dividing their treatment of issues into three categories (sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality) Kristof and WuDunn are honest about how complicated these problems can be. They recount meeting Momm in a brothel in Cambodia, "a frail girl with oversized eyes who had been pimped for five years and seemed near to cracking from the strain." (37) She pleaded with the authors to help her and Momm's owner finally agreed to let her go for $203.

In her hometown, Momm set up a stall selling meat in the market and phoned often with updates. But a week later, Momm went back to the brothel. Brothel owners often give girls meth to keep them dependent, and Momm had to go back for her fix. Twice more an aid worker helped her go back to work in her hometown, but each time she had to go back for meth and finally remained at the brothel, showing how "many prostitutes are neither acting freely nor enslaved, but living in a world etched in ambiguities somewhere between those two extremes." (39)

Likewise, the question of how to eliminate this kind of situation is tricky, and there is wide debate about, for instance, whether it's more effective to ban prostitution or to legalize and regulate. The authors explore that debate, but also suggest that it may not be applicable in some areas. "In poor countries, the law is often irrelevant, particularly outside the capital. Our focus has to be on changing reality, not changing laws." (32)

Consistently thorough, realistic, and creative, Kristof and WuDunn consider the big picture, bringing areas such as politics, international relations, organizational structure, legislation, culture and tradition, and religion into their discussions of these complex problems and responses. They also address the topic from both perspectives of justice and of pragmatics.

"If the international effort is dubbed a 'women's issue,' then it will already have failed," they suggest. "Sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women's issues 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." (233-234)

On the other hand, they make an equally strong argument for the practical value of empowering women — including positive impact on major issues of the day such as war, terrorism, population pressures, climate change, poverty. "We would never argue that the empowerment of women is a silver bullet," they say, "but it is an approach that offers a range of rewards that go far beyond simple justice." (238)

Finding Methods that Work Kristof and WuDunn propose that, while there are no magic solutions, there are approaches that are more effective, more financially efficient, or more likely to have lasting impact.

Sometimes methods have to be roundabout. We think we can educate girls by building schools, but often the teachers don't show up to work or the kids stop attending. An unglamorous solution? Half the Sky suggests that one of the most cost-effective ways to insure school attendance is to de-worm students. Another is to help girls manage menstruation. And a third — iodizing salt. Not to mention bribery using cash grants or food.

Considering this kind of solution highlights what Kristof and WuDunn emphasize over and over: People who discover these things and act on them are not organization administrators in comfortable U.S. offices,nor are they foreigners visiting for a week. It's people on the ground in these countries who have the knowledge, influence, and connections to make a difference.

Both these elements are interesting to consider in light of Adventist mission work and the more recently popular social justice endeavors. We've traditionally done well, I would argue, in placing long-term missionaries who do indeed become intimately familiar with the people and place where they're working. I think we could do better in both creativity and social entrepreneurship and in fully embracing a larger-picture, longer-term dream that is not limited to conversions and dental care (I know, I oversimplify – but that certainly is what the story starts to sound like to many of us).

"While empowering women is critical to overcoming poverty, it represents a field of aid work that is particularly challenging in that it involves tinkering with the culture, religion, and family relations of a society that we often don't fully understand," Kristof and WuDunn write. (177) They suggest the most powerful means of change are grassroots projects with local ownership. Those of us who don't live and work in the areas we want to impact can best support positive change by supporting the endeavors of people who are on the ground in those places.

In their conclusion, Kristof and WuDunn suggest the three major projects they'd like to see the U.S. take the lead on, "to see a grassroots campaign bringing together feminist organizations and evangelical churches and everyone in between, calling on the president and Congress to pass three specific initiatives." (246) These three, which they believe will have the most widespread and enduring positive impact, would be a $10 billion five-years effort to educate girls around the world, a global drive to iodize salt in poor countries, and a twelve-year $1.6 billion project to eradicate obstetric fistula and lay groundwork for the fight against maternal mortality.

"We hope to recruit you to join in an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women's power as economic catalysts," Kristof and WuDunn write. "This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you'll just open your heart and join in." (xxii)

Lainey S. Cronk is a writer and caretaker-of-elementary-school-children in Napa Valley, California. She is seeking to enact creative humanitarian aid methods on the smallest of scales by working on her Ph.D. in Processes of Distracting Children From Destructive Activities Via the Telling of Unexpected Stories.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2417