How Reading Half The Sky Inspired Me
Today is International Day Of The Girl. Worldwide, more than 62 million girls are unable to get an education which is why CNN's new film on global girl's education, We Will Rise, broadcast for the first time today, is so important. Education is personal. for me. Nobody in my family had ever been to university. But thanks to an excellent education at an all girls' school, doors were opened to me that enabled me to gain the confidence to pursue my ambitions and have a voice in the world. I want every girl (and boy) to have the same opportunities as me, which is why supporting global girls' education is such a priority for me. And why I am an Ambassador for Half The Sky.
I first heard about the book Half The Sky shortly after taking a trip to India. Over Christmas and New Year 2013/14, I spent the most amazing three weeks travelling in rural Rajasthan. This trip was intended to mark a major transition point in my life as well as to provide some much needed time for reflection about how I would ensure that mine is a life well-lived. I don't think it's possible to visit India and not be changed. India itself was alternately inspiring, frustrating, thrilling and confounding. The depth of poverty was shocking, and I was stunned to learn that girls in the villages I visited were engaged to be married by the age of 10 and their education effectively ended then.
It was the people I had the very great fortune to spend time with that made this trip so special, and the conversations we had that challenged my thinking (in a good way) around what is of fundamental importance to me. For example in conversations with Stephen, the founder of the Snow Leopard Trust UK, I was struck by his powerful sense of mission, determination and relentless focus. I was impressed by the collaborative and holistic way in which the Trust works with local communities to protect this highly endangered species. This got me thinking more creatively about the ways in which I could ‘give back,’ and the charitable causes I’d like to support. Although my stay in Rajasthan was brief, I saw grinding poverty, insanitary conditions, inadequate healthcare provision and learnt just how little education village children, especially girls, receive.
Over the course of 2014, I read a lot around development and education, and researched a number of charities, all of which were doing great work, but just didn’t ‘call to me.’ ‘By chance’ I heard about a book titled ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity For WomenWorldwide’ and ordered a copy straightaway. Written by Pulitzer Prize winners, Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, ‘Half the Sky’ stunned and captivated me. Not just because it's a compelling read, which it is, nor because of the density of information and high quality of the prose, but because it offers an insightful, optimistic perspective on why and how each of us can and should meet one of the great moral and humanitarian challenges of our times.
What Nick and Sheryl have done in ‘Half The Sky’ is lay out the case for why empowering women in the developing world is both morally right and strategically imperative. Nick and Sheryl have been journalists for years. As a married couple, they covered the Tiananmen massacre and were appalled by the dramatic loss of human life. But as they continued their work in developing countries, they discovered that the most dreadful suffering happened in the daily lives of poor, mostly village women, making the treatment of women in developing countries the great story of this century.
The authors tell how women are promised work and then sold into sexual slavery and imprisonment while the authorities turn a blind eye. How these women are beaten, raped and drugged if they try to resist the men who have bought them. How many contract AIDS from forced sex work without protection. How to return home to their families is complicated by shame and addiction. And how in some cultures, it’s accepted practice for a man to rape the woman he wants to marry to force her to submit to him, and how in others it’s common for rape to be used as a weapon by criminals, or in family feuds - the perpetrators secure in the knowledge that shame will prevent the victim from reporting the attack to the authorities (and often result in the victim’s suicide).
Nick and Sheryl describe how families and states systemically fail to invest in education and healthcare for women so that girls who could be an economic asset to their families and country end up controlled by and dependent on male relatives, undernourished and often dead at a young age from preventable diseases. They describe how traditions like female genital mutilation can become so ingrained in a culture that women themselves support them.
The authors make their argument through a combination of statistics and some truly horrifying stories of women they’ve met. 14-year-old Mahabouba Muhammad, from Ethiopia was abandoned by her parents, and then sold into marriage by a neighbour. She found herself a virtual prisoner, raped by her “husband” and constantly beaten by his first wife. She became pregnant and ran away, but her relatives wouldn’t help her and she was left to give birth alone. By the time help arrived, Mahabouba had suffered obstructed labour (the baby died inside her) and internal injuries that left her doubly incontinent and unable to walk. Her relatives, fearing she was cursed, left her alone in a hut, after removing the door so that the hyenas would kill her. Only her indomitable will to live - and the fortuitous presence of a Western missionary in a nearby village - allowed her to survive. Mahabouba was taken to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, sewn up so she was no longer a "modern-day leper," and then stayed on helping on the wards. Over time, she learned to do fistula operations herself – and now surgeons learn medical techniques from her!
Then there's the story of Mukhtar Mai, a lowly Pakistani girl who was raped by men from a higher caste. The men expected her to go home and kill herself as was the custom in her village, but she applied for redress and caught the attention of the then-President Pervez Musharraf, who sent her $8,300 in compensation. Mukhtar started a school, learning to read and write along with her students. The attention she brought to the issue of rape in Pakistan led to her being spied on, hounded and threatened by the government. But once Musharraf’s government collapsed, the harassment stopped.
‘Half the Sky’ is a call to arms - a treatise that unashamedly seeks to highlight a problem and convince its readers to take action to solve it. Its stories show us the power and resilience of women who have every reason to give up, but never do.Titled after an old Chinese proverb that says "Women hold up half the sky," readers are asked to recognise the full implications of that wise proverb and work together to ensure that women everywhere are able to realise their full potential – both for themselves and so that we all can benefit from the contributions they will make to our global society.
I defy anybody to read ‘Half The Sky’ and not take action! The book has played a major role in crystallising my own thinking around development, education and the economic empowerment of women. As a result I decided to become an Ambassador for the Half The Sky Movement, and am organising activities that build awareness of the issues facing women and girls, and promote gender equality at home and abroad.
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