Tales of women's plights disturbing
“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn. Knopf. 2009. $27.95.
By Cindy Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
According to a Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” Unfortunately, in many countries, women still face shocking oppression.
Each year, approximately 2 million girls disappear as a result of gender discrimination. That statistic is shocking in its own right, but the myriad ways in which women face oppression are even more astounding.
Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn shed light on the subject of women’s rights around the world in their new book, “Half the Sky.” It is an inspiring look at how women are overcoming poverty and oppression.
Kristof and WuDunn have traveled all over the world as journalists. In this book, they serve as guides for the reader. However, this is not a typical travelogue. They describe places that tourists never visit. In fact, some of the places described in this book are probably among the most depressing in the world.
From the red-light districts of India to remote villages in Ethiopia, Kristof and WuDunn visit places where women’s lives have no value. They can be sold into brothels, beaten, raped or left to die in abandoned huts.
The amazing part is that this behavior is socially acceptable and often legal. Yet women around the world are fighting back. Their stories are incredibly moving.
Change from within a culture is much more effective than intervention by foreigners. One of the most inspiring examples comes from Pakistan. Mukhtar Mai never attended school because there was no school for girls in her village. After her younger brother was kidnapped and gang-raped by members of a higher social class, he was accused of illicit sex.As punishment for his alleged crime, the village tribal council sentenced Mukhtar to be gang-raped. The expectation was that she would commit suicide soon afterward to cleanse herself and her family, but Mukhtar’s parents would not allow her to kill herself.
Mukhtar’s humiliation eventually turned into anger. She went to the police and reported the rape. In an equally surprisingly move, the police actually arrested her attackers. Mukhtar’s story captured headlines in Pakistan, and President Pervez Musharraf sent her $8,300 in compensation. She used that money to build a school for girls.As her story drew more attention and her school grew, Mukhtar’s public comments began to embarrass the Pakistani government. The government began threatening her in order to silence her. Mukhtar continued to develop her school and even built two more. Girls in her area now have the opportunity to get an education. Mukhtar’s efforts have also helped shift the paradigms regarding rape in rural Pakistan.
Not all of the stories have happy endings. Maternal mortality is still a major problem in the developing world, and Kristof and WuDunn provide a great deal of information about the subject.
They also tell the story of Prudence Lemokouno, a pregnant woman in Cameroon. Prudence went to the hospital in need of an emergency caesarean. The doctor refused to operate on her without payment up front. As a result, the baby died before delivery.
When Kristof and WuDunn happened to visit the hospital, Prudence had been there for three days without any treatment. As a result, her abdomen was severely infected. The reporters intervened and made sure Prudence had the surgery. Unfortunately, the hospital did not have the necessary antibiotics, so Prudence became another statistic.
While Prudence’s story is tragic, Kristof and WuDunn use it to put a human face on an everyday event in parts of the world. They also provide examples of programs that are reducing the problem in other areas. Ultimately, there are signs of hope in the battle to improve maternal health.
An amazing maternity hospital in Somaliland helps save lives. Edna Adan spent her life savings to build a hospital in a poor part of Hargeisa. It was built on the site of a dump, but Edna’s hospital functions just like any of its Western counterparts. In fact, when Edna ran out of funds before the hospital was completed, a grassroots American effort ensured its completion. The American backers only assist in fundraising, so Edna still drives the change in her community.
There are many other inspiring stories in “Half the Sky.” Kristof and WuDunn do an amazing job of displaying the larger problem of oppression in human terms. They have even included a useful chapter that focuses on actions that individuals can take to make a difference in the lives of women around the world. The problems can be overwhelming, but the final chapter offers easy ways for anyone to get involved.
The oppression of women is never a pleasant subject, but Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written an extraordinary account of how women are fighting back around the world. It is amazing to see what some of these women have done with so little. “Half the Sky” is beautifully written and incredibly inspiring. I don’t know how anyone could read it without being moved and inspired to take action.