Half the sky, all your attention.

May 3, 2010 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY DAMIEN JAMES

Part one of two.

I recently attended a community conversation with New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, who was speaking about the oppression of and cruelty toward women throughout much of our global society, as illuminated with provocative bluntness and intelligence in the new book Half the Sky. A collaboration with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, the book earned the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a wife and husband team. WuDunn was not present for the conversation, but Kristof illustrated one of her connections to the subject matter by relating a story about WuDunn’s grandmother, who grew up in China and was a victim of foot binding.

The conversation was made possible by Facing History and Ourselves, an “international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism,” with the intent to promote a more informed and humane citizenry.

I am uncertain as to why the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University was not fully attended; there must have been at least 732 people in the Chicago area who had time for this event, who might have walked away from the evening filled with a certain shock and awe after finding that their quotient for compassion had increased considerably, which I would credit to the in-depth interviews and profound friendships embarked upon by WuDunn and Kristof as they spent time in Africa, Asia, and South America.

According to Kristof, the central moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery. In the 20th century it was the battle against totalitarianism. And in the 21st century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle against discrimination of women and children. One might argue that the former still exist in the latter, but by the end of the presentation, that women are still treated like second-class citizens – especially in third world countries, but certainly not limited to them – becomes quite clearly a truth beyond argument.

Kristof’s stories were often painful and graphic, and most importantly, personal. It was clear that he knew the women and children he spoke of, that he shared in their pains to some extent as they shared their stories with him, that he actually looked in their eyes and allowed himself to be affected by them.

He radiated a realistic sympathy as he spoke, and rather than try to make people feel guilty for how little they contribute to solving problems which seem far too large to tackle, Kristof focused – just as Half the Sky does – on making these insurmountable problems approachable by offering ways to get involved and engaged in the lives of women on the other side of the world, lives which can be radically changed by even the smallest generosity in the briefest of moments.

Beyond relating his experience and educating us about what we could do, Kristof offered hope as he spoke of women who have started fighting back, despite unbelievable odds and misogynistic patriarchal societies, not only improving their own lives but those of women around them, and in some cases gaining international attention for their cause.

In a moment I’m going to share some of these avenues for contributing to positive social change, but first I want to share some of the stories Kristof offered at the community conversation and through the book, because the myriad humanitarian crises which literally surround us are predominantly relegated to the back of our thoughts in abstraction; and there is certainly a reason for this psychic numbing.

How could we pay our Chase bills and watch the game or Idol or Top Chef, how could we Facebook our thoughts on the character arcs of Lost and Twitter our excitement at a Black Eyed Peas concert if we were always thinking about how acceptable it is to throw acid in a woman’s face in a country we have little or no desire to ever visit? And I’m not just singling out fans of “reality” TV or Facebook and Twitter users. To be honest, I think such social networks have an amazing amount of untapped potential, but it might be that not enough social entrepreneurs are using these networks to get our attention in a lasting way.

Is it powerful enough to state that 3 million women and girls worldwide can be fairly termed as enslaved in the sex trade? That, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, there are more than 100 million women simply missing in the world today? That girls in India from age one to five are 50 percent more likely to die than boys in the same age group because of the value placed on gender? (Such discrimination kills up to 2 million girls each year worldwide.) That 21 percent of Ghanaian women reported their first sexual experience was rape? That 17 percent of Nigerian women had endured rape or attempted rape by the age of nineteen, and 21 percent of South African women reported that they had been raped by the age of fifteen?

I don’t really even want to talk about the rates of maternal mortality in some countries, nor the number of women each year who suffer from fistula as a result of rape, women who are then ostracized from their homes because of the easily but rarely treated condition.

Such numbers just become fog, pressed back and out of our thoughts as we go through our day, which is why, Kristof argues, it is so important to personally connect with someone, to actively pursue a relationship.

Is it easier to remember – or harder to forget – if we see a photograph of Long Pross, a Thai girl who, at the age of thirteen was kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Cambodia? When Pross rebelled, the female brothel owner punished her by gouging out Pross’ eye with a metal rod.

Or Meena Hasina, an Indian Muslim who was eight years old when she was kidnapped and trafficked. In the dozen years that Meena was held in the brothel, she had two children and was beaten an average of five days a week. Her children were considered property of the brothel.

Is it harder to forget Zoya Najabi, an Afghan girl who was married at twelve and subjected to constant corporal punishment at the hand of her husband and mother-in-law? Zoya’s husband regularly beat her with an electrical cable until she fell unconscious. Her mother-in-law whipped the soles of her feet.

These stories are not isolated occurrences, nor are they plucked from some macabre dark age; they are entirely contemporary. Nor are they even the worst of what Kristof and WuDunn have to report. And while it might be easy to think that these women, children in many cases, should just flee, it is never that simple. The threat of punishment and death lies around every corner for many women in societies which condone such treatment in the first place.

Often the police in many of the countries Kristof and WuDunn frequent are bribed by brothels, intimidated by gangs, and will send women away with scorn for their audacity at even showing their dishonorable faces to the authorities. Occasionally police even beat the women seeking help, and there have been reports of women being raped by police before they’re pushed back out on the streets.

Again, Half the Sky is not simply a litany of abuse. It is also a lifeline for involvement, for there are as many heroes to encourage as there are villains to infuriate, women who have taken a stand against the injustices they were not only born into but also fully expected to accept.

Women like Edna Adan, who grew up in Somalia. (According to Kristof, the local camels had more freedoms than the women.) At eight years old, Edna was circumcised, joining the ranks of millions of girls who are forced to undergo the traditional procedure intended to reduce sexual desire and promiscuity for the sake of becoming more marriageable.

If this seems barbaric, consider that Edna is from an enlightened family, that her parents not only allowed her to have an education but also encouraged her to do so. Now a fierce opponent of genital cutting, she became Somalia’s first qualified nurse-midwife and eventually the countries first lady, marrying the prime minister. Edna went on to work for the UN and eventually retired from her post to open a hospital, which she was able to do with the support of women from around the world.

Mukhtar Mai, from a peasant family in southern Punjab, was sentenced to be publicly raped as punishment for a crime that her brother allegedly committed. Mukhtar prepared to commit suicide, a normal method of dealing with such situations in Pakistan, but was prevented by her parents, who kept constant vigil over her.

Eventually Mukhtar’s shame and depression became rage, which gave her the strength to report the rape to the police and demand prosecution. President Musharraf became aware of the case and sympathized, awarding Mukhtar the equivalent of over $8,000, which she used to invest in what she felt her village needed most: a school. The story spread and Mukhtar became revered for her courage and conviction; she was honored in several countries and went on to open more schools and raise the level of visibility for abused women everywhere.

In fact, each injustice in Half the Sky is followed by a survivor’s tale, someone who has turned their world around by sheer force of will.

Kristof pointed to the importance of education as intervention – the primary tool to dismantle the machinery of abuse which still runs largely unchecked in many countries – stating that education leads to professionalism which leads to community enrichment, a virtuous cycle. And while he pulls no punches about the fact that there is no easy solution to any of the problems facing women in the third world, Kristof has plenty of details, first-hand experience with individual women and girls and entire communities that have benefited from relatively small donations toward schooling.

For example, it costs only ten dollars a year to keep a girl in school in rural China, while fifteen dollars for a uniform is all that separates some African girls from a classroom. In Cambodia, the average girl has only 1.7 years of education; often in poor countries like Cambodia, girls drop out of school young – if they ever attended at all – to work and contribute to the family income.

It is when young girls join the work force that they are more susceptible to being trafficked, lured to different cities with the promise of a job, only to find themselves locked in a room empty of everything but a mattress. Cambodia has taken steps to curb trafficking by offering financial incentives to parents who keep their kids in school with perfect attendance, but it is far from a perfect system. There have been many instances of abduction while girls are walking long distances to or from their schools.

Despite how bottomless the problems of abuse and slavery in the sex trade are, both the community conversation and the book end with incredible positivity. Kristof and WuDunn have contributed so much of their time and money to improving conditions for women around the world and have seen direct results that their thrust is to encourage us to do the same, to express our humanity by taking incremental steps toward solving massive problems. Half the Sky ends with a chapter called Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes, a crash course in contributing to positive social change. As promised, here they are:

1. “Go to www.globalgiving.org or www.kiva.org and open an account. Both site are people-to-people (P2P), meaning that they link you directly to a person in need overseas.” Global Giving lets you choose and contribute to grassroots projects in education, health, and disaster relief, among many others, in the developing world. Kiva allows you to connect to entrepreneurs as a microlender; just as kickstarter microfinances creative projects, Kiva helps fund women to start their own businesses.

2. “Sponsor a girl or woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service.” Kristof and WuDunn are sponsors and have exchanged letters with and made visits to children in the Philippines, Sudan, and the Dominican Republic.

3. “Sign up for e-mail updates on www.womensenews.org and www.worldpulse.com. Both distribute information about abuses of woman and sometimes advise on actions that readers can take.”

4. “Join the CARE Action Network at www.can.care.org. This will assist you in speaking out, educating policy makers, and underscoring that the public wants action against poverty and injustice. This kind of citizen advocacy is essential to create change.”

Though it might only take ten minutes of your time, Kristof and WuDunn insist that these steps are just to break the ice. Half the Sky has a comprehensive appendix of organizations to connect with, should one feel particularly meaningful, and then the authors encourage readers to dive in.

Ten short minutes can change things. The family of one young Zimbabwean woman was given a goat through Heifer International, a gift that so radically improved their economic position that they were able to send their daughter to school in America. She has since returned and begun giving back to her community.

Ten dollars took a girl in China from poverty to formal education, which she used to better her entire village. Once barely able to scrape by on subsistence farming, the community now has wood and brick homes with electricity and a thriving export business, all because of a girl who was given the opportunity to go to school.

Kristof is also quick to admit that such problems are not unique to third world countries, that many cases of abuse and oppression exist in our own back yard, but there simply wasn’t room in Half the Sky to focus on domestic issues, something he plans to remedy in the future.

Read part two of two on Tuesday. If you want to.

Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery and Aldo Castillo, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project and Rhonda Schaller, various apartments in Berlin, London, Mumbai, and a tiny village in Romania.

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