Half the Sky

‘Women hold up half the sky’ – attributed to Mao Tse Tung

Lately, I’ve been struck by the idea that people are realising that it’s better to give women, rather than men, powers of management and decision-making, because women are more responsible. The outcomes will be better!

My opinion on this solidifed based on the few things I read recently. I came across them randomly, but they all happened to have this same underlying theme.

1) In the editorial pages on the NY Times:

“Not too long after the tsunami, government officials came through the village and announced that all new homes would be titled in the name of women (some were jointly titled to men and women). The men grumbled, but the officials told them they had no choice. Men drank and gambled, they said; women were more reliable.

Almost 50,000 houses have been built along the coast of Tamil Nadu. The result of titling these homes to women has transcended the economic gains of home ownership. It has changed the very social fabric of the coast.”

See the full article here

2) Likewise, in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti, the coupons for food rations were given to women.

3) Half the Sky

The most attention-grabbing/memorable quote in this new book by Pulitzer Prize-winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is:

” … a medical technician named Sonette Ehlers developed a product … Ehlers had never forgotten a rape victim telling her forlornly: “If only I had teeth down there.” Some time afterward, a man came into the hospital where Ehlers works in excruciating pain because his pen1s was stuck in his pants zipper. Ehlers merged those images and came up with a product she called Rapex. It resembles a tube, with barbs inside. The woman inserts it like a tampon, with an applicator, and any man who tries to rape the woman impales himself on the barbs and must go to an emergency room to have Rapex removed. When critics complained that it was a medieval punishment, Ehlers responded tersely: “A medieval device for a medieval deed.””

Men reading this are probably cringing. Don’t worry, it’s equal opportunity cringing. As a women reading about fistulas, and worse, well I was taking lots of deep breaths, but soldiered on.

The authors are up-front about this book being a pitch for their message: ‘a call to arms . . . against the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.’
See also the halftheskymovement.org

This book is a must-read. There’s a lot of rationale for why empowering and educating women simply makes good economic sense, and stimulates overall growth and development in developing countries. It will also in turns horrify you by its descriptions of atrocities committed against women, and inspire you with its accounts of strong, resilient women who are fighting back, doing amazing things to help themselves and their communities, against social/economic/political/cultural odds. But above all, it’s written in a way that’s so engaging and accessible, you’ll end up with a good understanding that these aren’t just ‘women’s issues’, but why things happening in the world are the way they are.

Banker to the Poor

This autobiography by Muhammad Yunus is about how he started Grameen Bank and how it evolved. For these efforts, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Grameen Bank provides small loans, known as microcredit, to the poor, as start-up capital so that they can improve their livelihood. (As a matter of fact, microcredit is featured in ‘Half the Sky’ as one of the most potent tools to help women. )

I started reading the book because I was really intrigued by the idea that what could be considered small change, say $15, the cost of lunch, could end up propelling a family out of poverty A hundred bucks is about what I donate to my alma mater in a year, which might cover half a textbook for a student in the UC system. Yet half across the world, as a loan it could probably enable a woman to invest in some bananas and cooking fuel, make banana cakes; and sell them for enough to put her kids to school for a year and cover their uniforms, and cover loan principal and interest. Such small sums, yet so potent! As someone who tends to be thrifty/cheap (hey I collect pennies 50 at a time and deposit each roll in my bank account!), I’m quite taken with this concept. Plus, these are loans, not handouts. Teaching fishing, not giving a fish!

Back to my original point about empowering the women . . . I was surprised to learn from this book that Grameen Bank quickly figured out that these mircoloans should be directed to women, not men, for better results. Women were more likely to do something productive with the money for their family, than men, who might abuse the loan for personal benefit, or just be plain flaky. Grameen developed a system where the loans wasn’t just offered to individual women, but to groups of five women for peer-enforcement. If the first two women repaid their loans, then the others would get their loans. (Actually, Grameen does give loans to men, but by they focus much more on women. )

By the way, if you’ve saved the cost of lunch by bringing leftovers, and are inspired, you can take that $15 and make a loan to someone halfway across the world, woman or man! via kiva.org


One thought on “Half the Sky

  1. Great post. The N.Y. Times story was a wonderfully up-beat story that I’d have missed were it not for your blog. Thank you.
    I’m glad to see aid organizations applauded for doing right ; too often the stories about them are negative inspite of the good work they do.
    I ‘m not an admirer of Mao but this quote of his is spot on. Women hold up half the sky and more.

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