I had long heard about Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, but just got around to reading it. Or rather listening. My to-read list is so long that I regularly get audio versions from my library that I can listen to in the car or while doing household chores. In this case, I wished I had the print version so I could underline and more easily follow up on websites mentioned. Do what works for you, but I highly recommend this book for Westerners who want their eyes opened to abuses of women in other parts of the world.
When I was growing up, my parents supported me in every way possible. When the local rural schools weren’t keeping up with the influx of population, they sent me to private school. My dad, a sports enthusiast who never missed one of my brother’s tennis matches or cross-country meets if he could help it, faithfully attended my concerts and musical performances as well. Music was not his thing, but I was his daughter, and his “I’m proud of you” meant the world to me.
Not so, many girls in the world. Their fathers wanted sons. Even their mothers are disappointed at their birth because there is more status in baring sons than daughters. Daughters are aborted or left to die as infants at appalling rates because they are not valued. Sons may be sent to school if the family can scrape together the fees, but why waste money on a daughter? She doesn’t need to learn to read when she is going to cook, garden or herd cattle for the rest of her life. Even medical care to save her life may not be considered worth the investment. Problems like these seem totally remote to suburban life, but
Kristof and WuDunn bring them near with powerfully moving stories, and then explain how suburbanites can make a difference.
These are issues I have heard of before, but the stories told here of real women trafficked, denied education or medical care, their genitals cut, beaten by relatives and held prisoner in their own homes, remind me that these are real women made in the image of God. Male-dominated governments often consider these to be “women’s issues,” but they are no more women’s issues than Civil Rights was a black issue. They are human rights issues. Many of these situations are worst in Muslim countries, but the authors are quick to point out that it is cultural tradition, not the religion, which discriminates against women in this way.
We ran into many “do-gooders” in our years in Africa and Latin America, full of solutions to the problems of HIV and orphans that came out of glass offices in the West. But large projects often fail because those Western organizers don’t understand the local culture. They create unanticipated complications, or millions of dollars are spent, but the project never gets off the ground for lack of local ownership. Kristof and WuDunn push for grass-roots projects, created by local people who do understand, and they give specific examples in each chapter. (Here is where I wished I were reading a traditional print version to take note of the organizations.) Most of these start small so failure isn’t catastrophic, but even small successes are life-changing for those affected. The solution to more girls staying in school may be as simple as providing sanitary supplies and a place to change them, or raising the IQ of babies by iodizing salt. Not very dramatic or glamorous.
Although this is a secular book, examples often include the best of Christian missions. I’m grateful for our mission SIM, which has always worked closely with the local church, seeking to facilitate church projects rather than drop solutions from above. The authors encourage liberals and conservatives to look beyond what divides us to work together on the things we can all agree on. They push for practical arguments that locals will appreciate such as the health complications that result from Female Genital Mutilation, or the economic advantages of doubling the workforce.
The book has been criticised as sexist (for using first names of women and last names of men) and colonial for glorifying the Western authors. I disagree. The purpose of the book is consciousness raising in the West, so of course, Western researchers will be involved. I was impressed with how often the heros were local, much like the South African grannies who ran the programs for at-risk kids in Tembisa and Alex where I used to do story hours. They weren't my programs, or even mission programs, but my small input could make a difference. That is what partnership is supposed to be as far as I am concerned--those in the church with resources, helping brothers and sisters in the context to accomplish the ministry God has called them to. The book is both edifying and practical in ways that Americans can help, by writing congressmen or linking with grass-roots organizations for micro-loans or to educate. This is not bedtime reading; you will never get to sleep for thinking about it, but it IS worth the read.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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