A global wake-up call about abuse of women

By Bill Williams
October 22, 2009

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In their urgent new book, the husband and wife team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue passionately that the oppression of women and girls worldwide is “one of the paramount human rights problems of this century.’’

Serious abuses include female genital mutilation, honor killings, sexual slavery, and mass rape, but this book is far more than a catalog of horrors. The authors include numerous steps that can be taken to reduce the awful suffering.

They estimate that 3 million women and girls are held as sex slaves. Human traffickers kidnap peasant girls as young as 7 and sell them to brothels. After girls are raped, they frequently remain prostitutes until they die, often from AIDS. During his research, Kristof purchased two teenage sex slaves in India for $150 and $203 and set them free. Within a week, one returned to her captors because she had become addicted to methamphetamines supplied by the brothel.

The authors cite another case in India in which pimps forced prostitutes to watch while they stripped a rebellious sex slave and then beat and stabbed her, leaving her to bleed to death. I often had to stop reading because the atrocities were too much to absorb.

Despite the legacy of oppression, Kristof and WuDunn are sanguine about change. They cite signs of growing awareness and determination among Americans who want to help make a difference. Harper McConnell from Michigan moved to Congo after college to provide medical care for impoverished women. Jordana Confino, a New Jersey high school student, founded Girls Learn International to raise money for the education of girls abroad. And Allan Rosenfield of Brookline, a physician, launched an international movement to make childbirth safe. On average, one woman dies every minute while giving birth, many in rural parts of Africa where there is little medical care.

Education, which can lead to meaningful work, is the single most important step to liberate girls and women, the authors assert. One surprisingly simple way to keep girls in school in Africa is to treat intestinal worms, which stunt physical and intellectual growth.

Just as America confronted slavery, the world today must face up to the issue of “women locked in brothels and teenage girls with fistulas curled up on the floor of isolated huts.’’

The authors are careful not to blame men alone. Oppression of women often is deeply embedded in local cultures, and is accepted by men and women alike.

Some nations, including China, are finally empowering women after centuries of oppression. Last year Rwanda became the first nation with a majority of female legislators.

The book excels as a compelling mix of history, culture, politics, and religious practice, including a nuanced discussion of Islam. While the authors concede that most Muslims do not condone extreme repressive practices, “the fact remains that the countries where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the workplace typically have large Muslim populations.’’

“Half the Sky’’ is a grab-the-reader-by-the-lapels wake-up call. The graphic descriptions of abuse routinely heaped upon women and girls merely because of their sex ought to enrage everyone.

Readers familiar with Kristof’s prize-winning columns in The New York Times know that he has been pounding away at these issues for years.

A Chinese proverb says “Women hold up half the sky.’’ The authors end their compelling book with a call to action and a list of websites with specific steps readers can take. “Now let’s get on with it and speed up the day when women truly hold up half the sky.’’

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

HALF THE SKY: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl L. WuDunn

Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95

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