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Educating and empowering women improves lives in the next generation

When Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn began reporting on world affairs in the l980s, they thought they would be covering esoteric stories at the highest level.

They were observers at Tiananmen Square, where 400 to 800 demonstrators were gunned down.  The following year, they ran across a study reporting that each year in China 39,000 girls died before their first birthday because they were not given the same medical attention that boy babies received.

One revelation led to another until they found themselves digging into the facts and figures of such topics as maternal mortality, sex trafficking, bride burning, microcredit, gender equality and family planning.  They had found their niche, and it was not overcrowded.

“We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls,” they comment in the introduction to a new book.

Their reporting on such subjects has resulted in the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

The subjects are not widely covered in our media and, when they are, it is too often for shock value.  However, the widespread implications should arouse everything from our consciences to our self-interest.

The World Bank is, of course, interested in the economic bottom line.  When he was chief economist there, Lawrence Summers reported, “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.  The question is not whether countries can afford this investment, but whether countries can afford not to educate more girls.”

A subsequent  study stated that promoting gender equality is necessary if we are to combat global poverty.  “Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality.  It contributes to improved health and nutrition.  It increases the chance of education for the next generation.”

In a somewhat wry aside, the authors observe, “When the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold discussions on girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you know that gender is a serious topic on the international affairs agenda.”

This book is not recommended for bedtime reading, especially if you have trouble turning your brain off at the end of the day.  It’s a difficult book to start.

Each chapter is divided into two parts.  The first section describes a problem and specific instances of its consequences.  The second describes a specific example of how it is being approached.

The problems may be spread across the world, but solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all.  They tend to depend on locally appropriate education and training.

The last chapter, “What You Can Do” also centers on education and facilitating education.  An appendix lists, “Organizations Supporting Women,” offering everyone opportunities to participate in the solutions.

Too often, individuals and groups want to work on problems on their own terms, but those terms are not always relevant to all cultures.

The title is half a Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.”

Empower, empower and empower.

Nancy Minard - Editorial Team