When we moved to Denver a few months ago, one of the things I left behind in Chicago was the book club that I started over three years ago. Tragic. I tried to go cold turkey, but I just couldn’t handle it. So the ladies were kind enough to keep me on the email list so I could keep up with what they’re reading. One of the recent books was Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
This book discusses the many ways that women are mistreated around the world, from sexual slavery to domestic violence, rape as a weapon of war, etc. It’s mostly things you already know about in a general sense, but seeing it all collected in one place is very powerful. Each chapter in the book describes a problem, tells individual women’s stories to illustrate that problem, and then presents solutions. As the authors point out, it is those individual stories that really touch us – we humans need to see another human suffering to truly understand a problem. Statistics and numbers make us numb and leave us feeling powerless. But the stories in this book are raw and you simply can’t ignore them.
The stories are incredibly depressing and it’s easy to come away from it feeling that men are pretty much evil. Take this quote for example: “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 as the authors point out, women also play a big role in the oppression of other women. They run brothels, initiate female genital mutilation, beat and kill their daughters, and even participate as soldiers in gang rapes. And women raised in these cultures buy into the violence. One story in the book describes a woman who came to them for help because her husband and his family were beating her ruthlessly. It finally came out that she was angry that they were beating her because she always did what she was told; but of course, if a wife did not do as she was told, her husband would be perfectly entitled to beat her.
As I read I was often reminded of the pro bono clients that I helped at my old job. One in particular stood out. She had been forced to undergo FGM at the age of twelve and was then forced into a marriage against her will. She was her husband’s fourth wife and when she refused to sleep with him he beat and raped her repeatedly and kept her prisoner in his home. She was finally able to escape and flee to the US, where we got her asylum. Her story illustrates the previous point: her mother and two village women were the ones who performed the FGM. And as a UNICEF Report makes clear, in many places where FGM is common it is the women who believe in it and carry on the tradition.
I was impressed that this book is, on the whole, very even-handed. There is the occasional jab at conservatives, but those jabs are often warranted. And there are criticisms of the left as well. The authors often describe occurrences of the law of unintended consequences – when the West tries to help and only succeeds in creating new problems. They also focus a lot on the value of private aid and non-centralized efforts. I, of course, thought this quote was a gem: “Capitalism, it turns out, can achieve what charity and good intentions sometimes cannot.”
That quote is in reference to microcredit, one of the best tools for helping women worldwide. (Speaking of microcredit, one of my friends from the old job recently quit said job and moved with his wife to Nepal, where she is a Kiva fellow. How amazing! They’re blogging about their experience at www.thekathmanduo.com. You should check it out.) Why is microcredit aimed at women? Basically, because women are better. “Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification and more for education and starting small businesses.” Men spend the family money on alcohol, tobacco, prostitutes and other unhelpful things. Women spend it on good food, medicine and education. The book is full of stories of women who received a small loan and used that loan to change their lives. Typically, their husbands become less domineering because the women now have economic power, their children have better health and education outcomes, and the women are just happier. The truly amazing part is how small those loans are – these women’s lives can be changed for what you might spend on dinner and movie. I’ve usually donated to Heifer International in the past (which is based on a similar idea), but I think I’ll try sponsoring a microloan next.
In her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley argues that one of the key questions that literature tries to answer is “the question of what to do with women.” She’s mainly discussing western literature and, with some exceptions (Marquis du Sade’s Justine, for example), the answer typically does not involve outright violence. But much of the rest of the world is not even asking that question – they know what to do with women and it isn’t pretty. Thanks to Half the Sky I now have a deeper understanding of that problem. And in the spirit of the book, here are some websites that everyone should visit:
(On a related note, I’m very sad to hear the accusation that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea contains lies and that his charity is not well run. That was one of our earliest book club books and it was truly inspiring. These claims will likely hurt giving to other charities as well. This is exactly why people are hesitant to give – they worry that their money is not being used wisely and that claims of how it helps are exaggerated or fabricated. On the other hand, I can absolutely understand his point that the villagers have a different sense of time and so would not necessarily remember the year he went there. I had a pro bono client from a remote African village who literally could not tell me the years her children were born. When speaking her native language, all dates were in English – the native language simply did not have that concept of time. I’ll be watching to see what eventually comes of these claims. And either way, it raises the important point: research the charities you give to before you give.)