half_the_sky
There are few books that have the power to change the way we think about the world. “Half the Sky,” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is one of those books. Long after the reader closes the cover, they might find themself pondering the carefully chosen facts interspersed with heart-wrenching anecdotes from women around the world. The picture that emerges is nothing short of shocking.

The authors find that “more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”

Let that sink in for a minute. How is it possible that this routine violence against women has not made bigger headlines? Part of the reason, Kristof and WuDunn argue, is that there has not been any one large, catastrophic event to focus on, like a war. Rather, the killing and discrimination against women is an ongoing occurrence.

Another part of the reason may be that, in many societies, women are just not as important as men. Female babies are considered unlucky; female babies are less likely to receive medical attention; female children are less likely to receive adequate nutrition and education. The list goes on. And, until recently, it seems that female victims have been less newsworthy than their male counterparts.

But however slow on the uptake, the international aid community is, in recent years, prioritizing women’s rights. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was signed by Bill Clinton, and in 2008 the United Nations declared rape a war crime, just to name a few examples of progress. Indeed, as horrific as many of the women’s tales are, “Half the Sky” is an inspiring book. Women are not the problem, but the solution.

This is true across the board. Microloans given to women are both empowering and, often, financially successful. Providing women with more education not only increases their ability to provide for themselves, but also decreases pregnancy and increases the likelihood that women will seek medical treatment during pregnancies.

The fact still remains that women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. But the picture painted in Half the Sky is not one where men are the villains and women the victims. In many cases, women are perpetrators of discrimination and violence. For example, many owners of brothels that engage in forced prostitution are women.

Ultimately, gender-based violence and discrimination are not such over-whelming issues that we ought to resign in defeat. Yes, the problems are often complex and require cultural solutions rather than a quick technical or financial fix. But not always. There are many examples of incredible people who make huge differences. Edna Adan started a hospital in her homeland of Somaliland. The Edna Adan Maternity Hospital provides maternal healthcare for impoverished women, treating problems like obstetric fistulas that are rare in developed countries but it is estimated the between 2.5 and 3 million women worldwide suffer from fistulas.

An obstetric fistula is the result of prolonged or obstructed labor. Pressure from the fetal head cuts off blood flow to the mother’s organs, causing tissues between body organs to die. This often leaves a hole between the bladder and vagina through which urine drips uncontrollably. Aside from being painful and vulnerable to infection, fistulas are hugely stigmatizing, and often destroy families.

While we are not all trained medical professionals, there are many ways to help. Pressure from the United States has often been one of the most effective ways to accomplish reforms internationally. When the U.S. cares about something, economic incentives are often attached. If the U.S. were to make women’s rights a priority, the situation for half of the world’s population would likely improve significantly.

Claire Karban

Sources: Worldwide Fistula Fund, Half the Sky Movement
Photo: San Jose State University