Saturday, November 21, 2009

Redux #4 - "Half the Sky" by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I picked up Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as a direct result of reading a Cannonball review on Pajiba. I hadn't heard of the book or the authors, but it sounded so interesting that I immediately put it on hold at the library. It's often hard to read books that focus on the worst living conditions in the world--they can easily become mindnumbing and depressing, but I was impressed by how Kristoff and WuDunn balanced intelligent communication of the worst effects of poverty and gender imbalance on women, while still inspiring me with stories of women who manage to survive, and sometimes even thrive, despite horrors and limitations I could hardly comprehend.

Half the Sky focuses on women and three particular abuses that they face in disturbing numbers, including: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality. Using personal stories of women they have encountered and interviewed on their travels, they describe a system of slavery of women in sex trafficking that involves significantly larger numbers than those involved at the height of the African slave trade in the 1800's. Young girls are sold, kidnapped, or tricked into a brothel, and once there, they are beaten and drugged into submission. Often addicted and infected with AIDS, they live hopeless lives. Even if they manage to run away, most often they do not speak the local language, they have nowhere to go, and the police might send them back or sell them themselves. The hopelessness was sickening, yet there were women who not only survived these situations but managed to set up programs to help others.

Another focus of Half the Sky was the the effects of untreated fistulas on African women. Often caused either by incredibly violent rapes that tear holes into the bladder and bowels or long, difficult labors, women are left dripping urine and feces without control. Their husbands and family will abandon them or sometimes build a hut for them far away in order to avoid the smell, and they become pariahs. Adequate maternal care could help avoid this problem and a small surgery can often heal the fistulas, but many women do not have the access or money for it.

There are many other personal stories and crises women are facing around the world discussed in the book. Kristof and WuDunn make no secret of their goal to encourage and mobilize their readers to help the women, whose stories they are telling, and the many others in need. Yet they manage to do it without being sanctimonious or partisan and by taking an objective look at real, grassroots programs, headed by locals, that have worked well throughout the developing world. For instance, they report that something as simple as providing school uniforms keeps young girls in school longer, preventing them from getting pregnant so young. Also, something as simple as adding iodine to salt can prevent mental retardation in children and significantly raise IQ points.

I would recommend this book to anyone. The personal stories are well-told and wrenching, and it is full of well-reasoned information about problems and solutions for improving women's--and thus everyone else's--standard of living in the developing world.

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