Friday, February 25, 2011

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

10 out of 10: The authors of Half the Sky make the case that the oppression of women globally has been our era's worst human rights violation, and they make that case persuasively. They focus on three things: sex trafficking and prostitution, gender-based violence (mass rape), and maternal mortality. From the beginning, it is made clear that this is not just about discrimination, this is true oppression:

"In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or under funded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal. In India, for example, mothers are less likely to take their daughters to be vaccinated than their sons- that alone counts for one fifth of India's missing females... All told, girls in India from one to five years of age are 50% more likely to die than boys the same age."

I dog-eared so many pages. They did an amazing job of putting faces and names to the horror of rapes, forced prostitution and fistulas. That was exactly their point, because they say studies have proven that individual stories carry more impact than statistics in getting people to donate their time, money or effort. Here are some of the stories than impacted me.

A female medical tech in South Africa was told by a rape victim "If only I had teeth down there." Some time later, a man came in to the hospital in pain because his penis was stuck in his zipper. Because rape is such a huge problem there, the medical tech put two and two together and made a product she calls the Rapex. It's inserted like a tampon, but is a tube with barbs inside! In response to critics, she said "A medieval device for a medieval deed." I honestly wasn't sure what to think about this story, and I'm still unsure. But it has stuck with me since I read it.

The stories of maternal mortality got to me. I know I'm an advocate for natural birth, but there is still a place for the medical community in birth. The World Health Organization's statistics are that 536,000 women died in pregnancy or childbirth in 2005, and that number is hardly different then the number thirty years ago. That means that in thirty years with all the medical advances we have come up with, about the same amount of women are dying. It's because they aren't getting the care they need, especially in the developing world (although sadly, America's maternal mortality rate is high for developed countries). An Ethiopian girl named Mahabouba is a sad, but perfect example. She was sold into slavery and became a second wife. She was raped by her "husband" and beaten by the first wife. She got pregnant and was able to run away when she was seven months along. Her uncle let her stay in a little hut by her house. She went into labor by herself, because she couldn't afford a midwife. Her labor was obstructed because her pelvis hadn't grown enough to accommodate the passing of a baby (she was 13). After a week, she fell unconscious and some finally called a birth attendant. The baby was dead, and she had developed a fistula, or a hole. She became incontinent, as many fistula sufferers do. The nerve damage was so bad she couldn't walk for some time. She was lucky and eventually made it to a fistula hospital (yes, there are so many that they have hospitals just for their treatment). She was able to learn to walk again, but will have a colostomy the last of her life.

The last part of the book is spent discussing things that have made a difference. Things like iodizing salt. I had no idea. 31% of households in the developing world don't get enough iodine. This can lead to brain damage while still in the womb, and apparently female fetuses need iodine even more so. I liked this quote: "According to one estimate, just $19 million would pay for salt iodization in poor countries that need it, This would yield economic benefits that another study found were nine times the cost. The result is that while salt iodization is one of the least glamorous forms of assistance possible, development geeks rave about it."

Another thing that has helped is paying families to keep their girls in school. Girls getting educated not only boosts the GNP of countries, but it also puts off motherhood and reduces the number of children born to the girl. And studies have found that females work harder to help pay for the education of relatives or their children.

At the end, there is a section of what you can do to help in the broader sense, and then four easier steps you can make in the next ten minutes. Some of them simply have to do with awareness, but is also mentioned, because micro loans are another simple thing that is making a big difference.

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