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lip lit: half the sky

Let me be completely honest; I don’t really have any fears or anxieties in being female.

Yes, I worry I could disappoint my parents. But I’ve never worried about them selling me into marriage or prostitution.

Yes, I worry about rape. But I never worry about a man raping me, then telling the courts he wants to marry me, and the judge turning to me and saying, “Well, sweetheart, that’s a pretty good offer.”

Yes, I worry if I give birth, it’s going to be the most painful experience of my life. But I never worry it could kill me

Yes, I worry if I get married, it might end in divorce. But I never worry about a man throwing acid on my face, or organising for someone to rape me, just so he has reason to divorce me.

Yes, I worry I pursued the wrong degree. But I’ve NEVER worried about not being able to have an education.

Many women around the globe are treated abhorrently, and this is what Pulitzer prize winning journalists (and husband and wife) Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn investigate in their book Half the Sky. When they lived in China, they covered the massacre at Tienanmen Square. Like the rest of the world, they were horrified by the events that took eight hundred lives. Then they stumbled across a study that horrified them more: due to neglect 39,000 baby girls die in China yearly. Knowing this hadn’t even received a mention in the news, they questioned their direction as journalists, and started investigating rights of women in developing countries. The figures they found were disarming and appear improbable; there are somewhere between 60 and 101 million missing women in the world, and  in one decade more females have been killed in gender crimes than all the people in twentieth century genocides.

So why is it that the ‘routine genocide of women’ doesn’t receive the same amount of press? Or why doesn’t it incite the same amount of horror and disgust? Is it because it extends to many countries and over such a large time frame? Is it because we are so cautious about respecting other cultures? Or are we just concerned with first world feminism problems that we forget that globally the battle has barely begun?

I’ve procrastinated writing this piece because of the sheer enormity of this subject. It’s complex, it’s terrifying, it’s inspiring. I certainly cannot do it justice in around 1000 words. I’ll delve into particular issues more deeply in future pieces, because I can barely touch on them here.

Kristof and WuDunn journeyed throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. They spent time in cities and remote villages; they went to brothels, schools and hospitals. In all these places, they found three common injustices; sex trafficking and forced prostitution, maternal morality, and gender based violence such as honour killings and mass rape.

Millions of women and girls are sold into sex slavery, mostly by a family member. Sometimes they hear about a job ‘washing dishes’ in a city, and their interviewer abducts them and sells them — which is precisely what happened to Cambodian woman Srey Rath. She ended up at a brothel in Kuala Lumper. When she refused to have sex with her first ‘customer’, Rath was beaten, gang-raped and threatened with death. She was drugged and kept naked to minimise the risk of escape. She wasn’t allowed to use condoms, was barely fed and never received a coin. Rath escaped with three other girls by balancing a floorboard between their ten story high building and the one next door. When they found a police station, they were arrested for being illegal immigrants, and Rath spent a year in prison. On her release, a guard sold her to trafficker at the Thai border, who sold her to a brothel. The conditions of the Thai brothel were less extreme, and Rath was able to soon escape. Upon her return to Cambodia, she came into contact with an aid group called American Assistance for Cambodia. They spent $400 and bought her a small cart and goods. She sold these at a profit, and invested in higher quality merchandise. With her business doing well, she upgraded to a stall. She later bought the stall next door. She now financially supports her entire family, and has started one of her own.

Rath’s story is like the majority in Half the Sky; they break your heart, but then lift your spirit. Unfortunately, some of them not only break your heart, but make you incredulous. Take Prudence: a 24-year-old woman who was refused an emergency caesarian because her family couldn’t afford it. WuDunn and Kristof stumbled into a Cameroonian hospital by accident, and discovered Prudence had been lying there untreated for three days. The two offered to pay for the surgery, and their camera man and Kristof donated their blood for her surgery. During their donation, the doctor snuck out the back door and went home.  The next morning, he operated, but it was too late. Prudence went home to die. The UN estimates that around half a million women die in childbirth every year, which can be broken down to 1,369.8 a day, nearly one every minute. These figures are devastating, because we know how easily it can be prevented.

Gender based violence is the trickiest for us to confront. Maybe it’s because of the nature of the weapon used most often against girls; rape. A young woman in Pakistan, Mukhtar Mai, was gang-raped by order of a council. Her crime? Apologising on the behalf of her younger brother, who was falsely accused of having sex with a girl of a higher-status clan. In her own words, “They know that a woman humiliated in that way has no other recourse except suicide. They don’t even need to use weapons. Rape kills her.” Muktar initially planned to commit suicide, but her parents watched over her. Her remorse turned into anger, and she turned this anger into her own weapon; she pressed charges, received compensation and invested this in building a school. She has since been named a Glamour Woman of the year, and has started her own welfare organisation. While Muktar’s story is an inspiring success story, it’s sadly an anomaly.  Women aren’t only raped for some form of twisted atonement, but also to force them into an unwanted marriage, and horrifyingly — as a stragedy of War.

The treatment of women that Kristof and WuDunn outline is so horrifying, that it’s difficult to see a favourable outcome. Throughout the book they investigate various solutions, as well as the work of charities and grass root efforts. And what they discovered — and what they tell us in the introduction of the novel, is this — “Women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.” And they are right.

Investing in education and encouraging and supporting not-for-profit micro-finance schemes will give women the confidence and the power they need, and in turn, they will command respect. I’m hoping to bring you interviews with some amazing and gracious people who are working tirelessly to help these women improve their lives. Half the Sky is the most important novel I’ve read in years, and have perhaps ever read. Kristof and WuDunn are never preachy or judgmental. They write with compassion, respect and hope. If you don’t believe me, believe Angelina Jolie; “These stories show us the power and the resilience of women who would have every reason to give up but never do…you will not want to put this book down.”

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