A Must Read: Half the Sky

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, explores perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation of our time: the horrific abuse of women and girls, primarily in Africa and Asia. It is easy in industrialized and democratic countries to think that the struggle for women’s rights has largely been won, because in many countries, like the U.S., young women are attending college in significantly greater numbers than young men; because girls in affluent and democratic countries grow up believing they can have the same opportunities as boys; and because even though women are still paid less for the same work as men, we are still largely free to achieve the same goals.

We know that women fare worse in other countries, but it is hard to fathom the extent of misogyny and cruelty perpetrated on girls and women, because such information is rarely on the front page of the news. For example, before 9/11, it was generally only feminists who were calling for the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Had Osama bin Laden not been headquartered in Afghanistan in 2001, it’s doubtful that any action against the Taliban would have been taken, and its oppression of women under its brutal regime would have persisted, with little or no intervention from other countries.

With the publication of Half the Sky, the hidden abuse of women across the globe is no longer quite so hidden. Kristof and WuDunn have written a readable, albeit horrifying, bestseller that is bringing to light the unimaginable exploitation of half the human population. Their powerful book promises to help create real and meaningful change. It already has, and I believe that this book is one of the top three (along with Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer) that people ought to read this year. In its pages readers will be shocked, but left with hope and concrete actions to take.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised that the single biggest avenue for change that Kristof and WuDunn advocate lies in educating girls to free them from poverty and provide them with choices which slowly, but inexorably, diminish their oppression by both their husbands and those who would use and abuse them for profit. While Kristof and WuDunn are talking about education that provides basics (literacy, numeracy and technological knowledge), I couldn’t help but wonder if there was room for humane education. It’s a tricky question. Much of what humane education explores – the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection – would not find fertile ground in schools barely able to provide the basics of reading, writing, and math or in societies where women must ask their husbands if they may leave the house, but in its broad goal of educating a generation of solutionaries, my hope is that humane education can take root even in these schools, so that girls realize their capacity to create positive changes in their own lives, and perhaps systemically in within their societies to the extent that they are able.

My only frustration with what is a phenomenally important book lies in the ways in which the authors undermine the plight of animals, which is so unnecessary in a book that so fully uncovers exploitation and oppression of those without power. For example, when discussing a $9 billion estimate of the amount of money that would be necessary to provide effective interventions for maternal and newborn health for 95% of the world’s population, the authors write that this “pales beside the $40 billion that the world spends annually on pet food....” Of all the things to which to compare aid to women, it is odd to choose pet food, as if providing food for our companion animals is some sort of frivolity at best or moral failure at worst. Why not compare the $9 billion needed to spending on cosmetics or computer games or sports events? If this were the only place where the authors chose to mention animals in a subtly dismissive way, I would not be mentioning it, but it is not. It is my great hope that all forms of oppression, victimization, and exploitation will be seen as morally repugnant, and it’s worth pointing out that tens of millions of dogs and cats are brutalized and killed every year, and that they, too, are worthy of our compassion and care. Still, my small quibble is just that. Kristof and WuDunn have written a book we must read and heed, and I’m profoundly grateful for their courage, commitment, and tremendous effort to bring the plight of women across the globe to light.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: "The World Becomes What You Teach"

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