Sunday, July 25, 2010

Women hold up half the sky

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 25 July 2010)

At any given time, I am likely to be reading two or three books at a time. I love to read. I read for entertainment, I read for information and sometimes I read just to read because it is so relaxing. However, I recently read a book that I would classify as one of the most important books I have ever read.

In fact, I believe every person in every country should read this book. It is entitled, “Half the Sky,” by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I have bought this book many times over and given it away to many a friend and acquaintance.

The title of the book is based on a Chinese proverb that says women hold up half the sky. The book itself provides the reader a glimpse into the lives of women around the world. It tells stories of women recovering from rape in South Africa, of teenage girls kidnapped and sold into prostitution and of women in India who finally take a stand for themselves against patriarchal social expectations.

Every one of the stories included in “Half the Sky” inspired me, even the ones that did not have a happy ending. This book, more than any other I have read in my life – and I’ve read a lot of books – boldly showcases feminine power and spirit.

Here is a sobering excerpt from the book, “The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”

The book maintains, and I certainly concur, that for “this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”

I have long advocated education as the single most important act for women to ensure themselves a safe and financially secure life. This is also a constant theme throughout the book. From chapter three, “Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not entail docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.”

My stomach drops when I hear a young woman say she does not need to go to school because she will get married and her husband will take care of her. Life does not guarantee pretty packages such as that. There are a million reasons why that line of thinking is faulty.

What if the woman gets married, but the husband finds something or someone else that makes him happier? What if the husband dies at a young age? What if the husband’s salary alone cannot support the family? What if the husband is abusive and the woman is forced to leave the home for her own safety? What if marriage never comes at all? These reasons and many others are why a woman should be able to provide for herself.

Education also helps women move beyond the role of being discounted humans. From chapter two, “People get away with enslaving village girls for the same reason that people got away with enslaving blacks two hundred years ago: The victims are perceived as discounted humans.” Education helps to remove the docility that allows women to be discounted. Educated women understand their value to society and voice their opinions on matters of governance.

Moreover, when women are educated and contributing to the work force, there is great potential for enhanced national economic health. Here is a quote by the World Bank found in the introduction to the book, “The question is not whether countries can afford this investment, but whether countries can afford not to educate more girls.” A more blunt way to put it is, “Gender inequality hurts economic growth.”

China has the injection of women into the work force to thank for their recent economic explosion.

It is good to see the government of Guyana making progress on this point. On October 17, 2006, I wrote a column about how great it would be to see Guyana introduce a micro-credit scheme like the one helping so many women in India start their own businesses. Just a few short years later, it does. I am now waiting anxiously to see how the women of Guyana use their own micro-credit loans from the government to improve their situations in life.

As women contribute to every part of society, another important communal aspect is affected – security. “Some security experts noted that the countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionately those where women are marginalized. The reason there are so many Muslim terrorists, they argued, has little to do with the Koran but a great deal to do with the lack of robust female participation in the economy and society of many Islamic countries.”

In this light, one cannot help but draw correlations between the way women are maltreated in Guyana and the broader national security issue. Yet even bruised and battered, abused and misused, Guyanese women are finding their way into positions of industry, law and governance.

All is not a silver lining though, if the female leaders of Guyana do not use their positions for the good of all. If these women succumb to the status quo of the long-held male traditions, we will see society become even more entrenched in death, poverty and corruption.

However, I have faith in Guyana’s female leadership. In fact, in my opinion, the opposition coalition that would truly work is one that is led by a female and would have many females in high positions.

If I could, I would pass this book out to every person I met each day. If there is one overall theme I took away from this book, it is, “Women are not the problem but the solution.” That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

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