The coward commits

I sometimes feel so hopeless about the state of everything that for over two years I put off reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It was going to be painful, I knew, and I am a coward in that regard. But when I visited the local library to get a new card, there it was, on a shelf just steps away from the counter. Okay, it's time, I said to myself, and I handed the plastic-clad book over to the nice woman to check out.

At home I waited until after dinner and settled myself on the couch. Reluctantly, I opened the book and began. It was painful, sometimes horribly so. Most of the first few chapters were read through tears. But I'm so glad I did read it.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a book that reaches into your heart and squeezes hard. You already know much of it, though you may not know the dispairing details: how women and girls around the world—especially in Africa and Asia—are abused, used, cut, neglected, beaten, tortured, ignored, sold, raped, and and often left to die. The problems are massive, involving broad categories of awfulness: genital cutting, AIDS, war, prostitution, slavery, ignorance, poverty. And as the authors note, we westerners (and I include myself) commonly tsk tsk, say something must be done, sometimes throw money at the problem, and go on with our lives.

But we musn't just go on, and that is where Half the Sky succeeds beyond measure. For despite the awfulness of it all, Kristof and WuDunn spell out, through vivid portraits of extraordinary women, how this world of oppression and darkness can be changed. There are two primary and simple keys to improving children's and women's lives. The first is education, and the second is working at the local level, in remote villages, and within the dominant culture. (This is also reflected in Two Cups of Tea.) Imposing change from on high doesn't work, though it may make us feel good. But individual effort focused on individual women—or small groups—does work, and can have a transformative influence on the broader culture.

Education, especially, opens doors, often very small doors but doors nonetheless. Children and women who learn to read and understand simple arithmetic can, with help, become income earners, raising their status in the family and the village. Increased income means better food, healthier children, lower rates of abuse, and eventually, lower birth rates and stronger, more confident women who play a wider decision-making role in the family, village, and even beyond. And this is how the world will change.

There are many ways to assist this process and the authors list some helping groups in their Appendix. I was already a member of Kiva.org, a microlending program. Now I'm committed to giving more because I have seen proof that even my small donations make an important difference.

I hope that you too will read the book—if you haven't already. It is powerful, sensible, honest, and important. As author Anne Rice says in a back-cover blurb: "It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book. Wonderfully written and vividly descriptive, Half the Sky can and should galvanize support for reform on all levels. Inspiring as it is shocking, this book demands to be read."

I couldn't agree more.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn  (both Pulitzer Prize winners)
Alfred E. Knopf, 2009
Visit the Half the Sky website to learn more.