Altruism and Personal Sacrifice in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky: A Call to Action

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Current and former New York Times reporters, respectively, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half The Sky, ( it is also a PBS documentary and is available on Netflix) paint a picture of women and girls throughout the developing world who are both victims and overcomers of rape, domestic violence, vaginal and rectal fistula, lack of education, genital mutilation, and sex trafficking. They have testimonies from women throughout Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa who have had many devastating events occur in their lives, but through intervention, have been able to overcome these tragic events, most of which are not dauntless. Most of these women are indigent, uneducated marginalized women who have been victimized because of their lowly station in life. Both Kristof, and his wife, WuDunn explain with depth, clarity, and immense compassion, the root causes behind some of these horrific practices, as well as possible solutions to reducing these systemic cultural practices within the developing world.They persuasively undergird their book with research that supports their theories, while stating arguments in support and acknowledging those against the possible solutions. Kristof and WuDunn ultimately come to the conclusion that grassroot efforts in which both liberals and conservatives work together to help educate women and girls, rather than legislate to change laws, work best. Laws can be changed, but if there is neither will to enforce nor power of enforcement, what good is the law? Volunteers who personally sacrifice their time by engaging in lofty, yet noble altruistic goals, change one life at a time, thereby impacting the world resulting in global change one day at a time. The work is neither easy nor glamorous, but it may be the most fulfilling work that one can do.

As a Teacher, I daily preach education to my students. I tell them that it is the great equalizer. I often say it is power and it is! Yet, an overwhelming majority of girls in the developing world are uneducated. Many of them have never attended school because the parents lack the financial means to send them to school. In the developing world, education is not free. Although it may not be expensive in our eyes, it is expensive in the developing world where people earn less than one dollar a day. When educated women in the developing world educate young girls, (women are usually needed as teachers because of Islamic laws prohibiting the mingling of the opposite sex) they empower the girls to become independent and goal oriented. The girls will then develop personal responsibility, and strive toward success, instead of having a defeatist attitude. When education takes place, the women and girls are able to make decisions for themselves and see the harm of some of their actions. When women are empowered through education, the family stabilizes, and both pregnancy and domestic violence decrease.

Sex trafficking of impoverished, uneducated women is a problem worldwide, not just in the developing world, (Thailand, Cambodia, Congo, India,etc.) and many police officers fail to enforce laws against sex trafficking. Many of the police are bribed, and often take advantage of the brothels in these countries. Many young girls from Cambodia are forced to be sex slaves, and are taken to Thailand, duplicitously, with the hope of securing employment to help support their families. When they arrive at the brothel, and are noncompliant, they are beaten brutally into submission, and many of them are forced to continue for years drugged to the point of addiction in order for the brothel owners to keep them docile.  Many of them contract HIV/AIDS and become further stigmatized and are labeled as prostitutes.  If they are fortunate to be rescued by a humanitarian worker, they are often, upon returning home, rejected by their families and therefore, return to trafficking. Humanitarian workers often establish, at the grassroots level, education and economic programs designed to help these women become self-sustainable so that they will not return to sex trafficking because of having no financial support. 

Men often rape and gang rape women in horrific numbers in the developing world. If women are raped by men other than their husbands, their families no longer want them and they are often forced into the street. These women do nothing to cause themselves to be raped. The rape traumatizes them, and they sometimes become infected with HIV/AIDS. Usually women who have financial means or have been educated go back to their communities to help other women whom the rape victimizes. When women are empowered, their husbands are less likely to rape and abuse them.

One of the most common problems in Africa, is vaginal and rectal fistulas.  Many of these women who suffer with this are impoverished and never receive medical care. They suffer fissures during childbirth because of a narrow pelvis and because they do not go to the hospital for delivery. They are no longer welcomed in their homes because of the odious odor emitted from both the leaking urine and feces. These problems can be prevented through Cesarian Sections instead of through vaginal deliveries. But, because of their indigent status, these women are not treated, and many of them die because of infection. To combat the problems, there are hospitals specializing in fistula repair and birthing centers ensuring safe delivery, both of which often are established by non-governmental organizations. This reduces the infant mortality rate, the morbidity rate, and the maternal mortality rate!

Another threat to the health of women is genital cutting (the term mutilation is an offensive term to those who practice it) that is performed on young girls to prevent them from having sexual intercourse before marriage. This cultural practice is deeply embedded in African culture and it ensures that their girls will be able to marry because they will be virgins. In order to change this practice, women must be educated about the risks of the practice, and make decisions for themselves. The entire community, however, must prohibit this cultural practice in order for all of the women to be eligible for marriage. If a woman has not been cut, then she will be presumed to not be a virgin, and thus, she will be ineligible for marriage. The issue of genital cutting is a complicated one that is not easily changed.

Additionally, “honor killing” is a cultural practice in the islamic world in which women are killed if they are suspected of sexual impropriety. Dozens of men kill the woman, often by stoning her to death, even if there is no independent proof of fornication or adultery. Women must be educated and given legislative, parliamentary positions so that they can have a voice in legislation.

One must first understand the culture, before she can work on changing any attitudes or beliefs that are staunchly held; however, there are actions that can take place that can initially impact a developing nation. Sometimes it is not always the largest institutions that have the greatest impact. Those individuals who understand the culture, who have the stamina, and have a personal investment in helping often have the greatest success with empowering women and girls. Religious organizations, according to Kristof and WuDunn have the greatest success because they do not have a legislative agenda. Individual people can help through giving donations, through giving their time, and through writing letters to both congressmen and senators urging financial support to combat world problems such as sex trafficking. Encourage students and children to start student organizations in which the focus is to shed light on the concerns in the developing world, and have the students fundraise and donate the money to worthy organizations. In addition, spend some time volunteering in the developing world to relieve some of the heavy burdens that the workers face. Workers are needed more in the countryside, not in the large cities (help is often concentrated in large cities). Why not help today?  Not only will someone’s life be enriched, but your life will be better for giving. The more one gives, the more he receives (you do not have to be a Christian to benefit from this biblical principle).  Listed at the bottom are some suggestions from Kristof and WuDunn for giving ( I personally vouch for Plan International, an organization to which I for one year gave a monthly donation to sponsor a girl from India. I am going to resume my monthly commitment starting in October).

This book is worth reading. It will galvanize both women and men to act now! Please read it and see the documentary on Netflix.

Suggestions for Helping

Sponsor a girl or a woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service

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