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Do You Like Women? Read This Book!

By Lang | Books | November 5, 2009 |

By Lang | Books | November 5, 2009 |

For the sake of context, I will precede this review by saying when it comes to aid, I think Westerners should fuck off.

The reason: Two years ago, I spent eight months in Ghana working for a Canadian NGO called Journalists for Human Rights. I lived in Accra, the capital city, which also happens to be the hive for most major local and international NGOs in West Africa. And yes, I had a wonderful time and made some solid friendships, but I also learned that most Western notions of aid are fairly ridiculous. Most Ghanaians I met told me they felt Westerners were on holiday under the guise of volunteerism, living in luxurious conditions while working at orphanages and NGOs and radio stations, doing work that would ultimately not be sustainable because they’d leave after a few months.

With a lot of foreigners I spoke to, volunteering was sort of an ego thing — who doesn’t want to be a “hero” roughing it in the big bad African bush? (Accra, like most African cities, is of course much more developed than most media reports would have you believe.) It seemed to be a case of glamor over goodwill. Most Ghanaians were right. And this is a microcosm of what happens when Western forces attempt to intervene in third world countries on a larger scale. At best, it’s a short-term solution. At worst, we leave with things in shambles. A few Westerners have managed to create some lasting changes (Stephen Lewis and his work with AIDS, Jimmy Carter and his tireless — and fairly successful — attempts to wipe out guinea worm) but for the most part, I left my time in Ghana feeling like local solutions must be effected by local people.

The authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (who actually know what they’re talking about) echo these feelings. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who spent years in China covering human rights abuses. (They’re also married.) Kristof in particular has devoted his career as a New York Times Op-Ed columnist to exploring women’s issues all over the world. Half the Sky shares the stories of women Kristof and WuDunn met during their travels all over the world, with the purpose of sharing their struggle and the importance of female education.

All of the women the two journalists spoke with faced extraordinary challenges, and not all of these stories have happy endings. Some will make you blanch (like the young woman who is forced to abandon her children in a Thai brothel, or the woman who is ostracized from her village in the Congo because she was raped and developed a fistula, which is basically when a woman’s vaginal and anal tissues are so torn that urine and feces run nonstop down her legs). Some are incredible—-like the group of women who took mob justice in their own hands and murdered a known rapist, killer, and druglord in a public courtroom.

But most of all, many of the stories are purely and wholly inspirational. I hate that word — “inspirational.” It brings to mind Richard Simmons, or Dr. Phil. It’s used to describe well-to-do celebrities who visit villages ruined by typhoons in smock shirts and Wayfarers.

That’s not inspirational, my dear friends. Inspirational is a Burundi woman who went from having no say in her household’s income to growing an entire farm’s worth of crops, contributing food and wealth to her neighborhood and giving handouts to her husband. Inspirational is Angeline from Zimbabwe, who grew up not having enough money to buy underwear to wear to school and ended up becoming the executive director of the NGO that funded the remainder of her schooling. Or the soft-spoken Afghan woman who risked death over and over to start a chain of girl’s schools at a time when female education was banned by the Taliban. These were the stories that made me sneak into an airplane bathroom and cry silently to myself—-the ones of the women who succeeded quietly and humbly to change their surroundings. Inspirational is having nothing and defying the odds, the law, your culture, your religion, and more often than not, your own family, in order to do what you think is right.

That’s the best part of Half the Sky—-these women did what they did because they had to. They had no interest in being celebrated, or being heroes. They simply could not remain silent and continue living in the situations they were given—-and so they changed them. The book will inspire you to do something, anything — and thankfully, WuDunn and Kristof do not lecture, but instead give some options for ways that you can help if you feel inclined.

Off the soapbox now, with one more point: I loved this book, and I hate pretty much everything. Really.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read. For a list of this year’s participants, check here. For more of Lang’s reviews, please visit her blog, Read n’ Bleed.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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