I thought I knew something about the oppression of women around the world.
Working as a French-English interpreter, I heard testimony in court about a gang rape in the Congo. I interpreted the asylum interview for a young West African woman who pleaded to remain in the U.S. to avoid female genital mutilation and a subsequent arranged polygamous marriage to a stranger, twenty years her senior. I was privileged to interpret Dr. Terarai Trent’s speech to hundreds of Girl Scouts from around the world on how she overcame poverty and exclusion from education in Zimbabwe.
This week, I read “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn*. The book came out four years ago, but with the instant “click and download” options I have now, there are publications I’m immediately accessing that would have been consigned to a list of “must reads” that end up taking a place in line behind other immediate priorities.
Even my firsthand exposure as an interpreter to individual cases of abuse did not prepare me for the book’s overwhelming statistics on the worldwide oppression of women. “Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”
We mostly think of discrimination here in the U.S. as unequal pay or unwanted sexual advances. The country is in shock over the story of three women chained up in a basement in Cleveland for ten years. As horrible as that story is, it is only a local sample of the daily victimization of women on a worldwide scale: forced prostitution, honor killings, denial of education, the absence of maternity care, lack of protection from HIV and STD’s, rape and beatings as a way of life for the dominance of women by men.
Reading about all these horrors would be unendurable without the book’s central message that when the quality of life for women improves, it raises the whole country up. The education of girls seems to be the most powerful solution to elevating communities and eradicating poverty. The empowerment of women increases productivity, reduces infant mortality, and contributes to improved health and nutrition of the entire community. I heard a report on my car radio this week, about a study of men and women whose brains were scanned while listening to a baby cry. As if we needed scientific confirmation that women, and not men, are natural nurturers of human life.
This book touched a harmonic chord within my female soul when I read that it is more effective to give small sums of money to individual women than to throw huge sums at governments. I may not be able to identify with an African women kept in a mud hut, forbidden to come out without her husband’s permission, but I grin in recognition when I read that if you give that same woman a mere $10 per month, she manages to squirrel enough away to sell a few more crops, buy a couple of goats, and then send her children to school. Give it to the Male Head of Household, on the other hand, and it gets spent on banana beer and prostitutes. Women take small resources and nurture them into big results.
My daughter grew up listening to my personal evaluation of our lot in life as women: “Society is set up to give back to men an advantage over women that they biologically lack.” We women can reproduce and nurture life. Half the Sky tells of the violent, repressive social structures put in place to give men control over those reproductive and nurturing capacities we have. Girls in America who don’t think much about giving away their virginity would face stoning, forced prostitution and death in other places on the Earth.
It makes you wonder if, by extension, questions of global warming and the stewardship of the planet shouldn’t be predominantly handled by women. Mother Earth has been raped long enough.
We know that gender equality and improving the life of young girls is one of the most effective forces for change on the planet. It’s Mother’s Day soon. I’m all for recognizing Mothers, and empowering our girls, our future Mothers.
On Father’s Day, a banana beer should keep them happy.
*Half the Sky (Knopf, 2009)