Maternal Mortality, Slavery, Fistula Fill Half the Sky

Maternal Mortality, Slavery, Fistula Fill Half the Sky

By Elayne Clift

Ive always felt ambivalent about Nicolas Kristofs columns in The New York Times, even though they have exposed so effectively the tragic lives of so many women around the world.

The reason is that for decades before he got all those column inches, women (like myself) working in the trenches of womens empowerment globally could not get any mainstream newspaper or magazine in the entire country to run our stories. Even when we covered essential issues from various places around the globe during the United Nations Decade for Women and the subsequent Fourth World Conference for Women in 1995, we couldnt get our stories printed except in obscure, alternative, non-paying publications that are now, for the most part, defunct.

At the same time, Ive always been glad that Kristof had a forum, and the commitment, to get those stories out. So having licked my wounds, I was pleased to see his book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, garner so much attention. And with good reason: They have written a deeply compelling work that documents the pain of half the people on the planet, and they have called upon our collective conscience to do something about it.

The book, which takes its name from Chairman Mao proclaiming the Chinese proverb, women hold up half the sky, has sufficient data to shock and alarm, whether it is about sexual slavery and rape, honor killings, or maternal morbidity and mortality. Some of this data is offered in the spirit of creative epidemiology: As many infant girls die unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died in the one incident at Tiananmen. Some of it is offered in research-based facts and hard numbers: Women aged 15 through 45 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.

But what really packs a punch is that each chapter, from Emancipating Twenty-First-Century Slaves to Maternal Mortality One Woman a Minute, shares the story of real women whose faces we see in photographs, whose tragedies we cannot ignore, whose courage and intelligence we must applaud, whose lives we must help change.

In Cambodia there is Srey Rath, who was sold into sexual slavery when she was fifteen. In Pakistan there is Naeema Azar, who was blinded when acid was thrown at her by an irate ex-husband. There is
 who was kidnapped from her bed in Ethiopia at the age of thirteen and repeatedly beaten and raped. There is Dina from the Congo, who at the age of seventeen suffered a brutal rape by soldiers that left her with an extensive fistula a tear that resulted in urine and feces dripping down her legs.

There are the stories of other women as well, heroic women who miraculously have managed to rise above the violence and discrimination that silences them and tries to render them helpless, docile and victimized. One of them is Edna Adan Ismail, who previously has written about her work On The Issues Magazine. Adan founded and directs a maternity hospital in Somaliland. I was of a generation that had no school for girls, she told Kristof and WuDunn. It was considered undesirable to teach a girl to read and write because they would become promiscuous. Adan also recalled the experience of having her genitals cut, even though her father was a doctor (who was not told until after the deed was done). She was eight years old. I was caught, held down and it was done. Somehow, she rose above all the forces, cultural and economic, that have kept so many other women from achieving autonomous adulthood. Adan became a nurse-midwife who eventually worked for the World Health Organization before opening her own hospital.

Half the Sky offers a crash course in gender, health and development, while at the same time urgently advocating action. In fact, its last chapter, What You Can Do is a clarion call for Americans to stop looking the other way, to pressure government to be more effective by supporting proven indigenous efforts, and to continue writing checks while also engaging directly in on-the-ground volunteerism.

The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual play things into full-fledged human beings, Kristof and WuDunn conclude. Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Random House 2009; paperback June 2010).

March 31, 2010