Half the Sky
Half the Sky is a book by Nicholas Kristof, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, a banking executive and former journalist in her own right. She kept her maiden name. I like them both already.
The book explores the conditions of women globally and offers practical solutions for problems in the form of programs being run by women for women throughout the developing world. The issues the book explores are numerous and complex, from infanticide to the lack of women’s education to the lack of access to birth control and maternal morbidity rates and lack of health care. They also write about even more disturbing issues such as sexual slavery, prostitution, female genital cutting, rape, honor killings, and AIDS in Africa.
A lot of the oppression the book describes is news stories that most of us have been familiar with for some time now if you pay any attention to the news and women’s issues. I’d like to write about the images that struck me as fresh or particularly poignant.
For instance, in some third world countries it’s common for men to kidnap and rape girls as young as thirteen, in order to be allowed to marry them afterward. Yes, that’s right; once the girl’s purity is “soiled,” she is then forced to marry her own rapist as a reward for his crime. The girl is considered damaged goods, and no other man will marry her. And God knows that she cannot remain unmarried.
An American sponsored AIDS prevention program in Africa used suckers as a metaphor for female genitalia. These so-called aid workers told African young women that once a young man had sucked on their lollipop, so to speak, that all they had left to give to their next partner was an unwrapped, saliva soaked lollipop.
In much of the developing world the lack of maternal health care causes a common condition called a fistula. This used to be so common in the United States that there was a special hospital just to treat fistulas. A fistula, if you’re ignorant like I was, is usually caused when a baby’s head is too big to fit down the birth canal because a woman’s hips are not wide enough to accommodate it. Frequently, the children die unborn. It’s no longer common in the United States due to the prevalence of caesarean section. Caesareans might be too common now in much of the world, but it’s better than having a fistula.
With a fistula, a woman’s insides can be torn inside out and the tissues that separate her rectum from her vagina are torn. She is frequently helpless to control bodily functions and often paralyzed below the waste as well. Her loving husband’s response? Usually, she is abandoned and divorced, shunned by her society, and left to die in a shack on the outside of town. One husband even stabbed his wife from stem to stern, in response to his disgust at her foul smell. If she is lucky, then relatives will take pity on her and feed her. If she is unlucky, then the door to the shack is left open for wild animals to maul her to death in her sleep. It never occurs to anyone to seek medical care. They can’t afford it, and most hospitals won’t treat a woman without payment in advance.
The book tells of one woman who acquired her fistula after five men raped her and then, afterward, shoved a stick up her vagina.
Speaking of rape, women who are raped in the Muslim world don’t seek health care. Why? Because unless at least four Muslim men come forward as witnesses to the crime, the woman is seeking health care for something that gathers physical evidence of her fornication, a crime for women in Muslim countries. So, not only is a woman raped but she is also prosecuted for her own rape.
In South Africa, rape is so commonplace that a medical technician was inspired to create a device called a Rapex. It makes me think of one of the first season episodes of Grey’s Anatomy when a rape victim came into the emergency room with a severed penis in her mouth.
The Rapex is a device that is inserted into a woman’s vagina much like a tampon. On the interior of the device are barbs that cut into a man’s penis, and it has to be removed in an emergency room. Initially, I wanted to applaud upon reading about it (There was an internet story that made the rounds during the World Cup). However, upon further thought I wondered if the Rapex might cause more harm than good when the men seek retribution for their injuries. A legal system in a misogynistic culture might be more likely to prosecute the woman, perhaps even accusing her of seduction with the intent of injuring the man.
Half the Sky is an important book, more important for what I haven’t mentioned here, and that is the women and some men who are working to change the plight of women. There are tons of courageous stories of women who stepped forward to cause change. There are women who create schools and hospitals and women who create charities to repair fistulas or provide care to rape victims as well as the prostitutes and sex slaves who escape from brothels. There are women who champion the cause of ending female genital cutting. There are women providing loans to women so that they can be economically independent in running their own businesses.
All these people are making progress. The book is inspiring, and it tells you how you can become involved yourself with the schools, hospitals, and charities that are committed to making a difference in the lives of women around the world.