Thursday, June 2, 2011

Half the Sky

Last winter I read a book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Below is a review I wrote up for my Creative Codependence Blog. My apologies to those of you who read it there but I do feel it is an important enough book to repeat the entry.

I was reminded of this book with this blog’s previous entry on The Interdependence of Choice. In their book, Kristoff and WuDunn relate a story of how girls from rural African villages tend to miss school during menstruation due to lack of adequate protection. FemCare, a division of Proctor and Gamble (makers of Tampax and Always) heard of this and, in their desire to promote education for girls, started a distribution project involving free sanitary pads. The project immediately encountered some problems: “First, the girls needed a place to change their pads and clean up, but many schools lacked toilets. So FemCare began building toilets —with running water —at the schools, and that added hugely to the costs. Then the project encountered cultural taboos about blood, such as resistance to disposing of used pads in the garbage. FemCare had to make special provision for the disposal of pads, in some places even distributing incinerators. (p. 172)”

I tell this story not to conclude that rural African girls should not be given education due to the high costs of providing sanitary pads. Instead, I see it more as an allegory for the relativity and privilege of choice. In North America, the vast majority of menstruating women can choose between tampons and sanitary pads (organic or not), menstrual cups or taking contraceptives in such a way that the period is eliminated altogether. Often, and I include myself here, we choose the most convenient method rather than the environmentally sound one. In these small African villages, the girl’s choice is simple and rather bleak: go to school and risk embarrassing leakage or stay at home. My question to myself then is why, when I have so many opportunities to do the right thing, do I often choose to negate my responsibilities?

In lieu of answering that question, at least for now, I continue with the book review:

Kristoff and WuDunn travel the world investigating the lives of young girls and women in regions where being female is often a liability. They explore sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender based violence and maternal mortality which, they say, “still needlessly claims one woman a minute.” They relate first hand stories from the young women they meet: community leaders and entrepreneurs who have risen from horrific abuse and neglect; and, sadly, second hand stories from those that didn’t survive. But, best of all, they offer possible solutions that may not be perfect but give a glimpse of what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do as individuals to reduce the oppression. And while I don’t agree with all their ideas, I believe they strive for interdependence, specifically regarding social awareness and responsibility.

For example, in looking at what does and doesn’t work in terms of charitable deeds, the biggest thing to note is that no matter how good one’s intentions are, one has to be in awareness of the local situation. Sending money is fine but where and who does it go? Building a school is great but are there better ways to provide or encourage education? Stating that genital mutilation is harmful may be true but do you have local support to help change the inherent beliefs behind the ritual?

As to who to send money to, Kristof and WuDunn suggest donating to microfinancing projects that target women. They write: “some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending —by men…Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification [alcohol, prostitution and tobacco] and more for education and staring small businesses (p.192).” These microfinancing groups are peer monitored with local women supporting each other while also guaranteeing each other’s loans.

The authors have many supportive things to say about education but emphasize that solutions do not have to be grandiose. “One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance,” they say, “is to deworm students which affects children’s physical and intellectual growth. ... Increasing school attendance by building schools ends up costing about $100 per year for every addition student enrolled. Boosting attendance by deworming children costs $4 per year per additional student enrolled (p. 171).” Health programs such as deworming, iodine supplements and free lunches help, of course, all children but they specifically give girls a needed boost because in many families girls are the last to receive medical attention. Some regions have even resorted to paying families small stipends to keep their children in school—even bonuses in the form of food if the child is a girl. This is great incentive as girls tend to be the first pulled from school whether due to finances or early marriage.

Regarding the imposition of beliefs onto others, Kristof and WuDonn tell a story about genital cutting that underlines this problem. Molly is an American woman who moved to Senegal, married a Senegalese man and works with local education projects. When their daughter approached puberty she told her mom, “I want to be cut, I promise I wont cry (p. 225).” Although born of parents who disproved the procedure, the child was succumbing to peer pressure —she didn’t want to be left out. Cutting was an important coming of age right affecting, among other things, marital chances. The daughter changed her mind when she was fully informed of the process but it was made clear to her mother that attitudes cannot be easily changed from without, change must come from within.

The authors continually espouse education as the way to improve children’s health, decrease family size and increase societal justice but they are huge proponents to being flexible in the search for solutions. For example, they cite a study finding “that after cable television arrived in a [rural Indian] village, women gained more autonomy —such as the ability to leave the house without permission and the right to participate in household decisions. There was a drop in the number of births… wife beating became less acceptable, and families were more likely to send daughters to schools (p. 245).” Some of the more popular shows, ironically, were not educational in the traditional sense, they were soap operas set in middle class Indian families where women held jobs and had more freedom. These shows modeled a different and more attractive lifestyle that ultimately helped changed societal mores.

Once again, I encourage you to read the book. It contains fascinating and inspirational stories from women from all over the world who are working locally to help themselves and their communities thrive. For more information on how to get involved go to

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