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The Most Important Book of the Year

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Nicholas Kristof's and Sheryl WuDunn's new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is the kind of book that could change the course of history.

In the West, it's often easy to assume that the battle for women's rights has largely been won (an assumption, perhaps, that is easier for men to make than women). But any victory declaration would certainly be premature for other parts of the world. Half the Sky makes the case, in fact, that the plight of women is getting worse in much of the world and will continue on its downward slide unless we do something about it.

Kristof and WuDunn, a Pultizer-Prize winning team (and also husband and wife), are ultimately hopeful about what can be done, but they have some grim tales to tell along the way before they reach that conclusion. The killing of women - rightly described as "gendercide" - is occurring in the hundreds of millions, a statistic that can hardly be comprehended in the West. According to the authors, "More girls are killed in this routine 'gendercide' in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century."
There are several causes of this tragedy.

One of the most important sources of death and injury is the high rate of spousal abuse in many parts of the world. Kristof and WuDunn put it this way:

"Gender-based violence ... is ubiquitous in much of the developing world, inflicting far more casualties than any war. Surveys suggest that about one third of all women world-wide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. A major study by the World Health Organization has found that in most countries, between 30 and 60 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend."

And the violence includes more than just spur-of-the-moment acts by husbands. Sometimes the larger family unit gets into the act. Kristof and WuDunn note that in a recent nine-year period in just the twin-cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi 5,000 women and girls were either burned in kerosene or doused with acid by family members.

Neglect can take as big a toll as violence. Girls from poor families often receive worse medical treatment than boys. "In India, for example, mothers are less likely to take their daughters to be vaccinated than their sons," say Kristof and WuDunn. "That alone accounts for one fifth of India's missing females." And the situation doesn't necessarily improve as girls get into adulthood. The World Health Organization estimates that 536,000 women perished in pregnancy or childbirth in 2005 - or one maternal death every minute.

Women abducted into the sex trade are faced with violence and death as well - the worst of it coming when they are later discarded as too old, too ill, or too disobedient. Part of the solution, Kristof and WuDunn maintain, involves identifying a problem for what it really is: this illegal "sex traffic" should more accurately be described as "slavery." They estimate that three million women and girls worldwide are enslaved in the sex trade. Solving the problem can be slow and heartbreaking. Girls who escape are sometimes shunned by their families because they are prostitutes - totally disregarding, of course, the sad circumstances that brought them to that condition in the first place. Many are unable to earn a living in any other way, and they may be so ill and drug-dependant that they eventually wander back to the brothels that enslaved them.

But there is hope. There are many things that governments and private individuals can do to help. Organizations like Mohammed Yunus's Grameen Bank can work wonders with micro-loans to women who have been abused. Such loans give them a chance to set up small businesses for themselves. Saving women from ongoing violence in this fashion would also have the salutary effect of promoting economic growth in many parts of the world
But there are also things governments do that often make the situation worse. The ideological constraints imposed by anti-abortion conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations resulted in the de-funding of agencies that could have provided contraception services to approximately 122 million women around the world.

Even with the best of intentions, however, saving the world's women from abuse will take a world-wide effort on a par with the anti-slavery movement in the 19th Century led by William Wilberforce. Kristof and WuDunn are correct in calling this effort for women's rights "the cause of our time." They have provided a road-map for that effort, with many lists of organizations that can help and several things that individuals can do.

More than anything, however, Kristof and WuDunn have lit a moral fire with this book that could carry the movement forward.

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