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

The Too-Wild-West: Amanda Coplin’s “The Orchardist”

MizB at shoudbereading hosts the weekly Musing Mondays event.

Here are the rules:

Musing Mondays asks you to muse about one of the following each week…
• Describe one of your reading habits.
• Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).
• What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it!
• Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.
• Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!
• Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!

Amanda Coplin
Amanda Coplin

I am currently reading Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist for one of my book groups.  Set in late 19th/early 20th century Washington State, it is the story of orchardist William Talmadge and two young women, Jane and Della, whom he befriends and tries to protect.   This is Coplin’s first novel, and she has received high praise from critics, deservedly so.

orchardist

I am only about halfway through, so I am not ready to make Grand Sweeping Pronouncements on the novel as a whole, except by saying that Coplin’s writing is beautifully evocative of a bygone era, and her characters are complex and engaging.

One thing that struck me about this novel was how utterly wild the Wild West was.  By that, I mean characters could live their entire lives with little to no contact with the larger world or even other people.  People could and did start their own homestead and live their lives with only the most minimal contact with society.

In today’s hyper-connected world, where we are constantly bombarded with information from around the world, this may seem appealing.  Such isolation, however, has a dark side.  We see this darkness in The Orchardist.  We learn early on that Jane and Della are runaways from what can only be termed sexual slavery.  A man named Michaelson keeps a brothel.  However, the brothel is full of children and young women who are kept captive there as slaves. It is unclear where these women came from, but it is suggested that many of them were kidnapped and several are the children of the slaves.  If a woman dares to escape, Michaelson sends out his men to hunt them down and bring them back.

Everybody in the sparsely populated community knows what goes on in Michaelson’s place, but nobody does anything about it.  This aspect of the novel puzzles me.  Surely, even in the Wild Wild West, there were laws about kidnapping and sexual slavery? Or did nobody care because the slaves were just “whores”?

Maybe some of you readers know more about the history of these times and can elucidate me.  I know that brothels existed (and still do), but I assumed the women working there were adults who chose this way to make a living.  Was Michaelson’s brand of sexual servitude for white women common in that day and region?