Monday, August 24, 2009

HALF THE SKY by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

If you liked Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea or Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, here’s another great book for you: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I haven’t read it yet; it won’t be published until September 8. But I just read a lengthy essay adapted from the book in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and it was stunning.

The authors explain their title:
“Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos.
Kristoff is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times; WuDunn, his wife, “is a former Times correspondent who works in finance and philanthropy.” Together they won a Pulitzer prize for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Their article, “The Women’s Crusade,” is full of information that I—a well fed, well educated, adequately doctored late-middle-aged female—find shocking. The article’s fascination, though, comes not so much from the data as from the stories of women who changed their lives and brought hope to their families, their villages, and beyond. There’s no way to summarize these moving stories: you’ll want to read the article and, soon, the book. But here are some of the facts and figures that fuel Kristof and WuDunn’s pursuit of a better life for millions of women.

In many countries of the world, it is dangerous to be female.
  • In 1989, “as many infant girls died unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square.” This was because they did not receive the same medical care as their more valued brothers.
  • “In India, a ‘bride burning’ takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry.”
  • “More girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century.”
When women are powerless, suffering increases for their families, their countries, the whole world.
  • A study of Ivory Coast families showed that when men control household money, they spend more on alcohol and tobacco; when women control the money, they spend more on food.
  • “Gender inequality hurts economic growth.”—a Goldman Sachs research report
  • “Some scholars ... believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.”
Aid that provides education, medical care, and jobs for women is often more effective than any other kind of assistance.
  • “Women are the key to ending hunger in Africa.”—the Hunger Project
  • “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”—Larry Summer
  • In Kenya, "the approach that raised student test scores the most was to offer girls who had scored in the top 15 percent of their class on sixth-grade tests a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade (and the glory of recognition at an assembly)." Nineteen dollars!
I enjoy the relationship-driven fiction that has become so popular with book clubs over the last decade. I appreciate some of the personal spirituality and self-help books that aim to make us whole. But if you or your reading group are looking for a book that will hold your attention, turn your focus away from yourself, and maybe even suggest small things you can do that will make a big difference--read "The Women's Crusade" and see what you think of Half the Sky.

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