by Katharine Daniels
Executive Editor, The WIP
- USA -
For me and my colleagues, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is exhilarating. Already in its 17th printing, Half the Sky pulls no punches in detailing the major abuses women suffer worldwide. Through personal stories, told by the women living them, sex trafficking, forced prostitution, honor killings, mass rape, and maternal mortality become shockingly real. Critics believe Half the Sky will ignite the global women’s movement as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did the environmental movement in the 1960s. So do I. This remarkable book moves the conversation from women’s issues to human rights; shows change is possible one woman at a time; and, most importantly, inspires hope.
What becomes clear in reading Half the Sky is the opportunity the emancipation of women provides. Despite the oftentimes devastating read, the authors ask us to bear in mind what they refer to as a central truth: Women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity. Neither Kristof nor WuDunn are shy about their vision for the book, “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.”
Although Kristof and WuDunn are confident the atrocities committed against women and girls worldwide will one day be behind us, the pathway there must include both women and men. “If this is a cause that is backed only by women,” Kristof warns, “it has lost already. It is immediately marginalized.” According to Kristof, success will require a broad coalition to resolve an issue that he notes is no more a woman’s issue than the holocaust was a Jewish issue, or civil rights were a black issue. “When 100 million women are discriminated against to death, that’s not just a woman’s issue…both for intrinsic moral reasons and also for practical reasons…it's essential that men get on board.”
“It really is a partnership,” WuDunn adds. “It’s not women standing up for their rights. It’s really men and women standing up for just human rights.” She further elaborates that what’s needed is a realistic approach “that really focuses on outcomes, not on outrage.”
While traditional feminists, who have cared about these issues for decades, make up the older audiences on their speaking tours, it was encouraging to learn that the younger audiences include many more men. Young men who, according to Kristof, “don’t see this as a women’s issue or a soft issue” but instead “intuitively think that if women and girls are kidnapped and locked up in brothels or die in vast numbers in childbirth - that’s just wrong.”
Kristof and WuDunn’s challenge is to engage partners worldwide in a movement to stop abuses that for most of us are far removed from our daily lives. They use the abolition of slavery in Great Britain in 1807 as what they call “a singular, shining example of a people who accepted a substantial, sustained sacrifice of blood and treasure to improve the lives of fellow human beings living far away.” For its moral commitment to ending slavery, the British sacrificed the equivalent of more than $14 trillion USD today.Both Kristof and WuDunn were foreign correspondents and editors for the New York Times when they won the Pulitzer for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy protests. In the months following this story, they traveled the countryside and discovered staggering human rights violations, claiming tens of thousands of lives that never made the news. “We found that thirty-nine thousand baby girls were killed every single year before they reach the age of one,” WuDunn tells me. Yet unlike Tiananmen, “from the general media’s point of view, thirty-nine thousand baby girls dying every year…is basically not news.” Their book, she remarks, “is an attempt to raise this issue in a manner that would fit the way media covers events.”
Through the use of personal stories the authors engage readers with issues that might otherwise seem remote or irrelevant. They’ve discovered that individual stories “build empathy” and “open up an emotional connection” for the reader. Unlike much newspaper reporting, Kristof and WuDunn get their stories in the trenches. On the pages of Half the Sky readers meet women like Edna Adan who built a hospital for women in Somaliland on a site of land formerly used as a dump.
Similarly, the story of Goretti Nyabenda, a banana beer-making entrepreneur, shows a woman empowered by a microloan. Before receiving her loan she was forbidden to handle money or even go to the market by herself. Her transformation from a prisoner in her own home to the head of her household leaves the reader inspired by the magnitude of her economic empowerment.
The bar for what an individual can physically do is raised meeting young Westerners like Harper McConnell who decided to not just give money but her time in war-torn Congo. Upon graduation from university, this young woman moved to Goma to join the staff of a hospital that has only two gynecologists in an area serving 5 million people.
It is precisely these scenarios that make these issues relevant to men. For Kristof and WuDunn the argument is pragmatic. “If we educate and feed [girls] and give them employment opportunities, then the world as a whole will gain a new infusion of human intelligence – and poor countries will garner citizens and leaders who are better equipped to address those countries’ challenges,” they write. “If [countries] wish to enliven their economies, they had better not leave those seams of human gold buried and unexploited.”
Although Half the Sky has me filled with hope and optimism, I asked the authors what they did in the moments when they found themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems. “You really have to just focus on the progress,” WuDunn says. “I think that is the way you bring about change…How you become a doer is to really focus on what you can do and what you can bring to the table rather than…how this problem is so large…we just talk about individual stories…I think that is just the way you have to do it.”
Later that evening as I was reflecting on our conversation, I realized that although WuDunn’s final bit of advice is important, my hope is that from this point forward I will find it unnecessary. For me, reading Half the Sky and interviewing Kristof and WuDunn focused the question not on ‘how can we do this?’ but instead on ‘how can we not?’
While 2009 has ended with massive hunger worldwide, terrorism attacks destabilizing communities and countries, and increased global warming related natural disasters, the silver lining of Half the Sky is that when women are free and flourishing around the world, they become the economic powerhouses each and every society needs to survive and thrive.
“If you want to fight poverty you’ve got to empower women,” says Kristof. “If you want to bring security to a place like Pakistan or Afghanistan you’ve got to stop marginalizing women. If you want to address issues like climate change, population growth, and so on, women are key to those.”
And just as we no longer wantonly throw our trash out the car window or dump toxic waste in our oceans and streams, Half the Sky gives me hope that one day soon a country’s greatness will be measured not by its political or military might but instead a great country will be one where all people are fed, cared for, and free.
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