“Our century’s greatest injustice”

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are husband and wife journalists who jointly won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on China.  In their book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they argue that just as slavery and totalitarianism were the great moral issues of the 19th and 20th centuries, crimes against women will be the great moral issue of the 21st century.  After reading the book, I do not think that statement an exaggeration.

Millions of women are targeted for sexual slavery, rape, “honor” killing, and genital mutilation, and tens of millions allowed to die of neglect in childbirth or otherwise, specifically because they are women.  But the struggle for justice for women is a very different kind of struggle than the battles against slavery, fascism and Communism.

Nicholas Kristof was once at the India-Nepal border, and an Indian customs official went through his gear fairly thoroughly, to make sure he didn’t have any smuggled DVDs.  This was on a route where Nepali peasant girls are smuggled into India to be prostitutes, and Kristof asked what success the customs official had in stopping such trafficking.  The customs official said such an effort would be useless.  Young Indian men need access to prostitutes in order to protect the chastity of young Indian women.  The customs official said that if this means Nepali peasant girls have to be forced into prostitution make this possible, this is an unfortunate necessity.

As Kristof noted, the reason the customs official was so concerned about smuggled DVDs is that the United States government put pressure on the Indian government to protect intellectual property rights.  He was not concerned about human trafficking because this is not an issue any government has raised.

The authors are frankly propagandistic.  Reporting mainly from southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, they tell story after story, by turns gruesome and inspiring, about atrocities against women, the courageous responses of some of them, and what philanthropic Americans and other Westerners have done to help.  They throw in enough statistical information to persuade people like me that the stories they tell are not isolated instances.

The authors say that rape and prostitution are worst in countries such as India, Pakistan and Iran where male honor most requires protection of female virginity.  “Honor” requires prostitution to protect “decent” women, and it makes rape an effective tool of humiliation and social control.  Kristof and WuDann tell the story of a village girl in Pakistan who was sentenced by the village council to be stripped and publicly gang-raped to punish not her, but her brother, for some misdeed.  The expectation was that she would commit suicide out of shame, and this would be humiliating to the brother.  But her parents kept watch and prevented her from taking her life, a village Muslim elder denounced the rape as un-Islamic and she went to the police who, surprisingly, arrested the attackers.  With the help of money contributed by Americans, and publicity by Kristof, she founded a girls’ school and then many schools.

The suppression of prostitution, murder and rape is a question of law enforcement.  There are other problems no less serious, but harder to get a grip on.  Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, wrote an essay in 1990 on “100 million missing women.”  Women live longer than men, and so there are more women than men in much of the world, including Latin America and much of Africa.  Yet in China, India, Pakistan and certain other countries, men outnumber women.  The reason, Kristol and WuDunn say, is that parents don’t try as hard to keep their daughters alive as their sons.  Studies in India show that girls in India don”t get vaccinated as boys do, and are 50 percent more likely to die between ages 1 and 5.

Half the Sky is disproof of the notion that traditional ways are always better than modern ways.  Kristof and WuDunn say that women flock to sweatshops because, despite the poor wages, bad conditions and sexual discrimination and harassment, they are better off than working in the fields in their home villages.  In Africa, exposure to television shows that there are places where women can go outside the home without their husbands’ permission, and not be beaten up.  Kristof and WuDunn point out that history shows that customs can change.  The Chinese no longer practice foot-binding, and the United States no longer has outlawed slavery and segregation.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Their agenda is (1) eliminate sex trafficking and forced prostitution, (2) eliminate mass rape, “honor” killings and other gender-based violence and (3) reduce maternal mortality, which they say claims the lives of one woman every minute.

The means to accomplish this is by helping “social entrepreneurs” – individuals in both the First World and the Third World who take it upon themselves to fight crimes against woman.

They say foreign aid has its place, but they are critical of United Nations and U.S. government workers in Africa who spend most of their time in city offices and air-conditioned vans.  They have high praise for Christian missionaries who get out into African villages and share the lives of the ordinary people.  They say liberals would do well to imitate the evangelical Christian practice of tithing – setting aside 10 percent of income for charity.

It is too bad, Kristof and WuDunn say, that liberals and conservatives spend so much energy fighting each other over issues such as abortion, rather than joining forces on things they agree on, such as suppressing sex slavery and preventing deaths of women in childbirth.

One disagreement between religious conservatives who say prostitution should be abolished and secular liberals and libertarians who say prostitution should be legalized and regulated, to make sure that it is limited to transactions between consenting adults.  Kristof and WuDunn say that they have shifted over the years from the liberal-libertarian view to the conservative view.

They say that even in countries such as the Netherlands, which are considered a showcase for the policy of legal but regulated prostitution, legal prostitution provides a smokescreen for sexual slavery.  Besides, they say, the line between voluntary and involuntary is not clear.  A woman may be forced into prostitution at a young age, and remain “voluntarily” because she feels she has no other choice.

The authors have been criticized by reviewers for over-emphasis on how American and other Westerners help poor backward helpless Asians and Africans, implying that Asians and Africans are powerless to help themselves.  Their answer is that the purpose of the book is to encourage American concern and involvement.  I think the criticism is unjust.  I put down the book with a profound admiration for the bravery and creativity of Asian and African women described in this book.

One of the merits of Half the Sky is the authors’ awareness of how difficult and intractable some of these problems are.  Kristof bought the freedom of two teenage girls who were being kept against their will in Cambodian brothels.  He arranged for them to return to their home villages with a cover story about their lives in the big city, and arranged with a philanthropic agency to set them up in business as food vendors so they would have a way to earn a living.  Alas, one of them had become addicted to drugs, and returned to the brothel to get her fix.  The other was successful for a time, but her older relatives felt they were entitled to come in and help themselves to food without paying, and she eventually went out of business. Kristof then arranged for her to be trained as a beautician, and she had a second career and eventually was happily married.

Success in helping oppressed women in foreign cultures is like success in anything else.  It consists of trying, learning from your mistakes and persevering.

Click on The Women’s Crusade for an essay by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn summarizing their book’s conclusions.

Click on Half the Sky for the home page of Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Click on On the Ground for Nicholas Kristof’s web log.

Click on Nicholas D. Kristof’s Columns for an archive of his New York Times columns.

TED is a non-profit organization which holds two conferences each year on “ideas worth spreading” – a TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs, California, and a TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, England, each summer.  TED began in 1984 to facilitate exchanges of ideas from leaders in the fields of technology, entertainment and design.

Click on TED Talks for videos of other TED and TEDGlobal presentations.

Click on Heifer International for an example of successful “social entrepreneurs.”

Click on Ciudad Hermana for an example of successful “social entrepreneurs” here in Rochester, N.Y. [Added 9/15/10]

Click on Women in a Woeful World for a somewhat critical review of Half the Sky by a Harvard professor.

Click on Where Have All the Women Gone? for a review and summary of Half the Sky by a British newspaper columnist.

[Added 10/9/10]  There seem to be well-founded reasons for hope.

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One Response to ““Our century’s greatest injustice””

  1. gita4elamats Says:

    Reblogged this on ELANA – The Voice of the Future and commented:


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