WHO CARES ABOUT POOR WOMEN?

Half the Sky

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, Half the Sky:  Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

It took me longer than expected to read Half the Sky, not because it was badly written or uninteresting.  It took me a long time because the content made me sick, and I needed to set the book aside periodically to regain my composure.

It has taken me awhile to get around to blogging about the book for the same reason.  Even now, I feel nauseated as I write this post.  I am also afraid I will not be able to write for very long without descending into an incoherent howl of rage.

For these reasons, my post will be shorter than it probably should be.  The short version of this post is this:  READ THIS BOOK and then TAKE ACTION.  (At the end of the book, the authors provide the readers with specific, easy things we can do to help.)

The subject of Half the Sky is the oppression of women around the world.  Kristof and WuDunn, a husband-and-wife journalist team, call the oppression of women (especially poor, uneducated women) “the central moral challenge” of our time, and rightly so.

Kristoff and Wudunn
Kristoff and Wudunn

In their book they focus on a few major topics:  the sexual slave trade, female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape, and preventable maternal mortality.  I thought I was reasonably well-educated about the plight of women in the world today, and I had heard about the existence of all of these horrors.  However, I had no idea how wide-spread these abuses of women were.

Half the Sky is full of statistics.  Here are few examples:

  • “Our own estimate is that there are 3 million women and girls (and a very small number of boys) worldwide who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade” (10).
  • “Approximately once every ten seconds, a girl somewhere in the world is pinned down. Her legs are pulled apart, and a local woman with no medical training pulls out a knife or razor blade and slices off some or all of the girl’s genitals.  In most cases, there is no anesthetic.”  (221)
  • A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend. “Violence against women by an intimate partner is a major contributor to the ill health of women,” said the former director-general of WHO, Lee Jong-wook. (61)

Most people, though, do not respond emotionally to statistics.  We respond to stories of real people, and so that is what Kristoff and WuDunn focus on their book.  They get to know women from around the world who have endured horrific abuses, and they share their stories with us.

The positive message from this book, and it is a major one, is that these abuses of women are not inevitable.  The women interviewed by Kristof and WuDunn are not just victims; they are survivors who have gone on to achieve some success in their lives.

How did these success stories happen?   I am oversimplifying the answer, but basically it is education and microfinance.   Women everywhere, of every class, can be victims of oppression, but poor, uneducated ones are the most vulnerable.   This exchange between Kristof and an Indian policeman monitoring the border between India and Nepal exemplifies the callous attitude many people have towards poor women, especially when they are uneducated.  The Indian officer explained to Kristof that he was looking for terrorists or terror supplies.

“What about trafficked girls?”  Nick asked.  “Are you keeping an eye out for them? There must be a lot.”

“Oh, a lot.  But we don’t worry about them.  There’s nothing you can do about them.”

“Well, you could arrest the traffickers.  Isn’t trafficking girls as important as pirating DVDs?”

The intelligence officer laughed genially and threw up his hands.

“Prostitution is inevitable.”  He chuckled.  “There has always been prostitution in every country.  And what’s a young man going to do from the time when he turns eighteen until when he gets married at thirty?”

“Well, is the best solution really to kidnap Nepali girls and imprison them in Indian brothels?”

The officer shrugged, unperturbed.  “It’s unfortunate,” he agreed.  “These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society.  So that good girls can be safe.”

“But many of the Nepali girls being trafficked are good girls, too.”

“Oh, yes, but those are peasant girls.  They can’t even read.  They’re from the countryside.  The good Indian middle-class girls are safe.” (23-24)

 Clearly, poor, uneducated women are expendable.  One way to help remedy this situation, is to provide poor women with the opportunity to be educated and to have ways to support themselves financially.

Doing this, obviously, takes money, but not that much by western standards.   Kristof and WuDunn document many, many cases of women’s lives that are transformed when they are given the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to start small businesses.  Sometimes as little as $100 can be enough to start a woman on her own successful business.

At the end of their book, they list some very specific things we readers can do to help ease the sufferings of at least one woman.  As they write in their preface:

 “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.  That is the process under way—not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.

This is a story of transformation.  It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”  (xxii)

For information on how you can help, click here

Part 1 of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China: Common Expressions

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Lisa See
Lisa See

 

Chinese Lessons: Part I

I will be travelling to China later this summer. To prepare, I have stocked up on books about China. I am currently reading two of them:

  • China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn
  • Flower Net by Lisa See, a detective novel set in the U.S. and China.

**Both of these books were published in the 1990s. I do not know to what extent their information is out-of-date.**

From both of these books, I am learning some key terms and sayings that shed some light on Chinese history and culture. Although one book is non-fiction and the other fiction, the two works reinforce each other with the terms and themes they introduce.

Overview        I have learned so far that I am a foreign devil who should be careful not to bang dakuan anybody, lest I get a reputation for being porcelain with scars. I can expect Chinese people to be polite and hospitable to me, but I should not expect to learn anything about them beyond superficial niceties. I haven’t a clue where my laojia is, which only reinforces my barbarian status. I have no guanxi in China, which is a nation of reinzhi, so I should be particularly careful to sweep the snow in front of my own doorstep and to not bother about the frost on my neighbor’s roof. I know that the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot, so I won’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. Otherwise, the God of Thunder will smash my tofu hide into a pancake!

If that is not enough information for you, here is a brief guide to some common terms and sayings.

Glossary:

Every Chinese person is governed by a “triangle” instituted by the Communists::

  • the dangan, the secret personal file, which is kept by local police stations and work units. This file contains a record of political mistakes (such as criticizing the government) and errors in behavior (such as fornication). This information follows a person throughout their lifetime, keeping him from getting a job, being promoted or moving from province to province.
  • the danwei or work unit, which provides employment, housing, and medical care.
  • The hukou or residency permit, which essentially keeps people from moving away from the areas in which they were born.

When a Chinese person meets another Chinese person, he/she needs to know his laojia, his “ancestral home,” where his family came from—meaning the village of his ancestors. (Kristof and Wudun 38) For Americans, knowing one’s ancestral home is considered a mildly interesting, but essentially useless piece of information. For me, at least, a person’s laojia matters not a jot. In China, it is absolutely essential information.

Guanxi = relatives or friends in high places who could help/protect one. Having guanzi is essential for success. My sources tell me China is corrupt on a mind-boggling level, and without connections, one is doomed.

China is governed by Renzhi (rule by individuals), rather than Fazhi (rule of law). Sure, there are laws on the books, but they seem almost irrelevant. The rulers (from the top of the hierarchy all the way down) seem to do whatever they want.

On Foreigners:

  • Non-Chinese people are “foreign devils,” if not barbarians, and are all potentially dangerous.
  • Chinese people are instructed to not to say what they think around foreign devils. “Don’t show anger or irritation. Be humble and careful and gracious. . . Draw them in. Let them think they have a connection to you, that they owe you, that they should never cause you any embarrassment. This is how we have treated outsiders for centuries” (See 52).
  • Sheryl Wudunn, a Chinese-American journalist, was called jiayangguizi, afake foreign devil. (Apparently, her Chinese heritage prevents her from being a “real” foreign devil.)

Being porcelain with scars = being a loose woman.

Bang dakuan = to pick a person up (in the sexual sense.)

Quotations and Common Sayings

“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians [non-Chinese people] and the population.” –Emperor Qianglong, October 11, 1793, ordering the authorities to keep foreign visitors from talking to Chinese (Indicating the long tradition of China keeping itself isolated from the outside world.)

“Those who use the past to criticize the present should be put to death, together with their relatives.” –Li Si, Chinese prime minister in the third century B.C. (58) (Perhaps a bit brutal?)

So much in China followed the principle leigong da doufu, the God of Thunder smashes the tofu.” In other words, the powerful crush the weak. (Kristoff and Wudun 5)

Seeing is easy, learning is hard. –Chinese proverb (taken from Insight Guides: China)

Government policy was neijin, waisong, meaning “tranquility on the surface and repression on the inside” (Kristoff and Wudun 24).

Lu fen dan, biaomian guang: it’s shiny on the outside, just like donkey droppings. (Said of false facades)

The Chinese imperial tradition recognized no place for individual rights. Everyone tried to blend in according to the social norms; otherwise the authorities would qiangda chutou naio, “shoot the bird that flies in front of the flocks.” (K and W 280)

The culture of silence derives in part from the traditional Chinese emphasis on keeping one’s head down. A popular saying reminds people that “the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot” (K and W 254).

Sweep the snow in front of your own doorstep, and do not bother about the frost on your neighbor’s roof. (In other words, mind your own business.)

———————-

I am American rather than Chinese, so you, my dear readers, do not have to mind your own business.  If you are knowledgeable about China and you find this information wrong-headed, please let me know.  Feel free to enlighten me on other aspects of China you think I should know about!