In the face of modern day slavery, prostitution and poverty, effecting long-lasting change starts with empowering the fairer sex.
Poverty, illiteracy and diseases are scourges that continue to ravage Third World nations but the opening chapter of Half The Sky goes straight to the point. “We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.” Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the book is by no means a pro-feminism effort—the undergirding argument is that empowering women is quite possibly the most sustainable and effective way of combating poverty. “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world,” the book quotes Lawrence Summers, the former chief economist of the World Bank.
From the lowliest slums in India to the backwater villages of Congo and Pakistan, the authors chronicle the harrowing stories of women subjected to unimaginable abuse and violence, not to make up a sensational read but to illustrate the immensely satisfying yet at times inanely frustrating work of emancipation. Kristof tells the initially joyous story of freeing a young Cambodian prostitute, who later made her way back to the brothel from where she was bought, because her craving for methamphetamines had overwhelmed her. “They are neither enslaved, nor are they acting on their own free will,” he notes.
Time and again the authors emphasize education—because violence against women is not always a “tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike.” It takes a change of mindset, a revolution of culture and not just laws, to move forward. And even then, it’s not a simple matter of channeling donor money to build a building and asking the children to come. The deep-seated, interwoven causes of poverty which leads to slavery, sex trafficking and abuse are so complex that foreign aid can sometimes backfire and leave victims worse off than before.
Admittedly, while foreign aid and advocacy organizations play a key role, it is often the local women who galvanize the most impact. There is Mukhtar Mai, an uneducated woman from a small village in Punjab, who found the strength to shake off the violence and abuse rained on her to stand up to her country’s president and army chief, bringing irrevocable change to her nation. There is Usha Narayane, who led a village-wide countercharge against widespread oppression even when the authorities turned a blind eye, causing the perpetrators to become the prosecuted.
Tackling another chapter in gender inequality, the book sheds light on maternal mortality. While childbirth is usually an occasion of joy for women in developed nations, in Third World nations it can cause a lifetime of pain, stigmatization and death, through birth injuries that can easily be prevented but for gender bias and apathy.
If ever there was a person suited to speak on a humanitarian subject such as this, it is Kristof, who is fully aware of the enormity of the task at hand yet knows better than to oversell a noble cause and thus undermine the credibility of activists; who has seen enough tragedies to turn him into the biggest cynic, yet he remains hopeful and thankful for every small victory won. For anybody who wants to make the world a better place, this is required reading. As actor George Clooney said, “It’s impossible to stand by and do nothing after reading Half The Sky.”
Published by Virago Press
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