Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

by Anis Salvesen

On our drive from Agra to Delhi not long ago,  I saw quite a bit of countryside.  One thing I  noted was that the people I saw laboring in the fields were mostly women.  I commented on this to the driver, and he said, “Women do everything.  They work outside, take care of the children, cook, wash – everything.”  His tone betrayed no lamentation of this fact.  That’s all it was – a fact.

At that moment I thought of an event I had attended featuring Nicholas Kristof talking about his book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I can’t believe I did not write about it previously!  It was a great event, and the book altered my perspective on my life.  There are so many rights I take for granted.

Before I go any further, I should probably tell you a bit more about Nicholas Kristof.   He and his wife  left the US in 1988 and moved to Beijing to work for the New York Times as correspondents.  There, they witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  It was naturally horrific for them and was covered widely in the news.   That’s not surprising.

What was surprising was that whereas the number of people gunned down (4oo – 800 protesters) in Tiananmen Square was shiver-inducing, it was nothing compared to the number of baby girls (40,000) that died in China every year.  The contrast between the press the Tiananmen Square protest received and the dearth of press coverage of the deaths of little girls was just amazing to Nicholas and his wife Sheryl.  This caused them to wonder about the marginalization of “women’s issues,” and it soon became apparent that this was not an issue unique to China.  All over the world, females were being neglected, brutalized, murdered (basically every horrible scenario imaginable), and no one but the victims seemed to mind.

Fortunately, Nicholas and Sheryl decided to do something about it.  They traveled through Asia and Africa and compiled an amazing collection of stories of individual women who lived through unimaginable nightmares but refused to succumb to their fates.  Somehow they then weaved in relevant statistics and managed to paint a picture of the global oppression of women that was simultaneously universal and remarkably personal.

I could go on and on about what I learned from listening to Nicholas and reading his book, but instead I will mention two points that I found most striking and powerful.

  • At no point in the life of a woman does their gender not endanger their life: as children they are discriminated against when it comes to the allocation of resources such as food and medicine; as young girls and through their child-bearing years, they can all-too often die from giving birth; as old women, they are seen as useless and even blamed (then killed) for famines and natural disasters.
  • The oppression of women is (at least in part) directly responsible for the inability of entire societies to pull themselves out of poverty.  It stands to reason that systematically holding back half your population is not the best way to build your economy.  It wastes essentially half the country’s potential and fosters mediocrity in the workforce.  Not only that, but the gender with the money and power is less likely to invest the money on things that would move the country forward – things like education, the health of their children and even small businesses.**

Perhaps the first point was something I already knew, but reading the specific stories that were representative of the bigger picture was what I found to be so powerful.  As for the second point, it was an answer to a question that puzzles many: Why should women’s rights matter? Because the oppression of females does not just affect women!  The systematic oppression of women is holding entire countries back, locking them in an endless cycle of poverty.

Alas, there is just too much great information in Half the Sky to share in one blog post.  But I would like to leave you with a comment that Nicholas made that really struck me.  He said (to very roughly paraphrase) that his generation was interested in what happened in other parts of the world, but it was more on an abstract, intellectual level.  They did things like have sit-ins and protests against injustice, but they did not tend to intervene directly.  Our generation, I believe he said, is different in that it is one of action.  People today, thanks to technology, are able to connect with specific causes in specific regions of the world, and more importantly, with organizations on the ground that can help them make a very personal contribution to social change.

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** To illustrate this, Nicholas mentioned one particular study (more are found in his book) which was done in Ivory Coast that illustrates this fact.  Apparently each gender grows certain crops.  When the “men’s crops” thrive, more money is spent on vices like alcohol and tobacco.  But when the “women’s crops” flourish, the household ends up spending more money on food!

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2 thoughts on “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

  1. Well-written piece, very thought-provoking. I want to point out, also, that Kristof still works for the NY Times as a columnist. He is still addressing the gender inequality issue among other human rights issues in his columns each week. Check him out there, too.

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