Half the Sky: Book an account of justice for women and girls

Man’s boundless inhumanity to woman is by no means news. All the more reason to read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage Books/Random House, $15.99). This exhaustive account details, as one would expect, hellish sexual slavery and gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape. There is, however, something surprisingly and thankfully useful here. Along with a plague of soul-sickening problems, the authors propose very practical and very effective solutions — solutions that are saving the lives of women and girls.

Authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, husband and wife, have a fluid, reader-friendly style. It gets cloying in parts and does some preaching to the choir. Occasionally there’s the tiresome, knee-jerk analogy to the slave trade that brought Africans to America and to the struggle of the Civil Rights Era. Don’t let any of that put you off. Half the Sky is an unqualified godsend to souls who’ve been looking for a concrete way to chip in and do something about how wretchedly women and girls are treated all around the world.

It’s a welcome relief from a routine of horror stories. Half the Sky documents rescue in some cases, prevention in others. More than once Kristof and WuDunn have stepped in to purchase girls and women from pimps or brothels. In Thailand, Kristof paid $150, less than some people spend on sneakers, to ransom a young woman named Srey Neth — he even got a receipt. He and WuDunn took her back to her village, leaving her enough money to open a grocery store.

In Cambodia, teenager Srey Rath went looking for a job to help out her impoverished family, was tricked by the job agent, then by a Malaysian cop, and sold into forced prostitution in Thailand, a common occurrence. Not so common, she escaped. After she did, Srey contacted a legitimate social worker who in turn referred to an aid group, American Assistance for Cambodia.

With $400 in donated funds, Srey was able to start an independent business venture. She bought a cart and some things like pens, toys, notebooks, costume jewelry and other incidentals, becoming a vendor at the market place. With initiative and industry, she saved up her income, went from there to purchasing a stall, from there to buying the stall next to hers to, as of 2008, operating a thriving concern. This includes a public phone sideline — she charges customers to use her cell phone (it’s not AT&T, but it is pretty smart).

Just as forced prostitution is symptomatic of a general attitude toward women and girls as being less than and fair game to be treated as objects, basically as chattel, Half the Sky documents how combating that attitude is, itself, a strong step toward empowering women and giving men a serious wake-up call.

In Africa, a northern Burundi woman, Goretti Nyabenda, 35 and the mother of six, was virtually imprisoned by her husband. She couldn’t leave the hut without his permission. Not even to go to the market. Her husband kept hold of what little money they had, made sure there was enough for him to blow on banana beer. Her purpose in life was to serve as a whipping post for his lousy moods and as a sexual receptacle.

That all changed when she duped him into letting her attend a meeting of the humanitarian organization CARE. With the organization’s help, she turned a loan of $2 for garden fertilizer into a small business of making and selling beer, which has flourished.

When last Kristof and WuDunn looked in on her, Nyabenda had made excellent use of a modest opportunity and was, in fact, running the show at home. Because she was making just about all the money. It’s the golden-rule principle: She who makes the gold rules. Nyabenda, remarkable enough, is less and less an exception.

Read through the book and you’ll find encouraging case after case of cultures where women are born disenfranchised and finally get fed up, seizing sometimes the smallest chance to turn the tables and go for it, more often than not in a group.

In Kasturba Nagar, a slum of India, a mobster ran a gang of thugs, bribing police to stay off his back while enforcing a rule of terror with the fear of rape as his principal means of subjugating the populace. If he wanted money, you paid up or the females in your home were dragged out and raped on your doorstep in broad daylight.

Until Usha Narayane had had enough. She basically told him to go to hell and barricaded the door, calling the cops who, in turn, came and got him. And put him in protective custody. There was the sham of a bail hearing and other supposed due process of law, but everyone knew the fix was in and he would go scot-free.

There ensued a massive protest — with Narayane masterminding things — that culminated in a police escort being bum-rushed as women tossed chili powder in the cops’ faces, blinding them. They pulled out knives to exact retribution for the mobster’s career-long brutalization of women and girls. Some, of course, had themselves been raped by him and his men.

”Forgive me,” he begged. ”I won’t do it again.” That was a given. In retaliation for his having sliced off one woman’s breasts, the enraged ladies, on top of stabbing him repeatedly, relieved him of his sexual equipment. Since all the women claimed responsibility for the murder and Narayane was nowhere near the place, the authorities knew she was guilty — they just couldn’t prove it.
As Kristof and WuDunn write, ”There will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back.”
The title is taken from a proverb that reads, “Women hold up half the sky.” They certainly catch more than half their share of hell. This book does an excellent job of showing how that can change.

Dwight Hobbes contributes the commentary ”Hobbes in the House” to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and the TV show Spectator on the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network (Comcast Cable Ch. 17). He welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-recorder.com.