By Sarah Seltzer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
In "Half the Sky," Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof add popular storytelling power to the 15-year-old international-policy argument for lifting women's oppression. The authors call it the century's greatest moral challenge.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof have been a wife-husband reporter team for two decades.
In that time they've had more than one brush with danger and won a joint Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing.
In that time, they've also gone through what they call a gradual "awakening."
When they began their careers, "the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for," they write in "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," being released September 8. Kristof is also a columnist for the Op-Ed section of the New York Times.
As they traveled and reported in the developing world for The New York Times WuDunn and Kristof began to believe that so many of the devastating problems they covered were tied into the second-class--or often, far worse--status of women.
This shift led to a remarkable--and already widely-quoted-- passage forming the thesis of their new book
"In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery," they write. "In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world."
The book's message--that investing in women is the essential step in combating over-population, poverty and violent extremism--has been gaining mainstream acceptance for years, ever since feminists and women in the population-control movement began to question their institutions' own methods.
As Michelle Goldberg described in "The Means of Reproduction," released in April this year, these feminists within international family-planning structures decided that "women needed power, not just pills."
That idea gained major international endorsement in 1994 at the U.N.-coordinated International Conference on Population and Development at Cairo.
A year later, in Beijing, at a larger U.N. gathering, the Fourth World Conference on Women, world leaders formally adopted the same philosophy. It was there that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--then the U.S. First Lady--delivered her famous speech in which she declared that women's rights are human rights.
In the 15 years since Cairo, the idea that women's empowerment is the most effective, most humanitarian way to promote economic development and curb population and violent extremism, has gained widespread acceptance in such circles where agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund are know.
The U.N. Population Fund derives its guiding principles from the Cairo conference and describes its work as helping governments formulate policies and strategies to reduce poverty and support sustainable development.
Sarah Craven, Washington office chief for the U.N. Population Fund, said she is hoping the book will deepen national and worldwide interest. "Their writing just really underscores what so many NGO activists and women's advocates have been saying for years and years," Craven told Women's eNews, adding that the book's high-profile is sending ripples of excitement through the population and international women's rights community.
WuDunn echoed that, saying she hopes this book will reach audiences who haven't yet caught on to the rising recognition of the international struggle for women's rights.
The two journalists are now in a cross-country publicity tour through November that enjoyed an attention-getting kick-off with the August 23 edition of The New York Times Magazine, which devoted all its pages to the subject "Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of Our Time," with an excerpt from the book providing a key note.
The authors are also conducting an online contest that asks readers to highlight grassroots work they've witnessed in the developing world.
The authors' Web site takes an activist posture and recruits readers with "get involved" and "spread the word" sections. In a section on recommended reading, the authors flag Womens eNews.org and World Pulse.com.
The book avoids taking sides on hot-button issues such as the role of abortion and contraception in addressing maternal mortality or AIDS or the effect of U.S. foreign policy on women in the Muslim world, preferring to highlight pragmatic solutions.
"I think the key thing is people just have to put aside labels," said WuDunn. "In case of women and maternal mortality, when you get out in the field all labels are off. There's things that work and that do not work. It doesn't matter what your ideology is."
In the end, it's about resource allocations, said WuDunn. "It has to with the way money is managed in the household. When you give money to women the top three things they spend it on were food, health care for kids and education. And when you educate girls, they have fewer kids when they grow up, so it's a virtuous cycle."
The authors also point out that educating women and promoting their rights can help curtail extremists. On that point they quote Sakena Yacoobi, who educated girls in secret during the Taliban's reign in Afghanistan and continues to do so in the open now: "On behalf of the women and children of Afghanistan . . . if we are to overcome terrorism and violence, we need education."
The book is loosely divided into three categories: sex slavery and forced prostitution; honor killings and rape as a weapon of war; maternal mortality. All are intertwined with the essential problem of disenfranchisement.
In addition to covering urban and rural China and its Asian neighbors--about which the pair has written extensively before in books "China Wakes" (1994) and "Thunder from the East" (2000)--the new book has a wider lens. It looks into brothels in Malaysia, hospitals in the Congo, prisons in Kabul and clinics in Sub-Saharan Africa.
From its opening page, "Half the Sky" provides unflinching, intimate accounts of women who have been battered, beaten, raped and held in captivity.
Many stories appear to be ones of hopelessness, such as that of a young Afghan woman who must seek shelter in a prison to avoid the physical attacks of her extended family as they try to prevent her from taking advantage of an opportunity to study abroad.
More of the stories, however, are about heroines such as Woineshet, an Ethiopian girl abducted and repeatedly raped by a man who later wants to marry her. An indifferent judge tells the victim to marry the perpetrator. Women in similar situations are later helped in part by a letter-writing campaign by Equality Now, the women's advocacy group based in New York, London and Nairobi, that helped change the law in Ethiopia so that rape victims who were coerced into marrying their rapists could still take legal action.
For each big issue that the book addresses, Kristoff and WuDunn offer the tale of a grassroots pioneering problem solver, each of whom helps to build the book's sense of hope.
"It was certainly very humbling to spend time with people who have been through so much pain and suffering," said WuDunn. "Still, women are not victims or powerless. That's what so inspiring. There's a double-dividend. You can put effort in and it's not going to be a never-ending pipeline. You give them the tools to solve their own problems and they will."
Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City. Her work is available at http://www.sarahmseltzer.com.
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Half the Sky
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