Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.
Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman raped by decree of village elders as payback for her brother’s alleged courtship of a girl of a different caste. Mahabouba, an Ethiopian girl, purchased at 13 as a second wife by a 60-year-old man, ostracized by her family after she sustained a fistula in childbirth, leaving her incontinent and smelly. Srey Rath, a Cambodian teenager lured from rural poverty with promises of a restaurant job in Thailand, only to be sold into sex slavery in Malaysia, where she was raped, beaten, drugged and, after escaping and spending a year in prison as an illegal immigrant, sold back into a brothel–by a policeman. In the developing world, girls and women suffer because of their sex in the most horrific ways, and in the most commonplace as well: girl children get less medical care (even fewer vaccinations), less food and less attention than their brothers, with the result that in India, for example, the mortality rate for girls under 5 is up to 50 percent higher than for boys.
Full of vivid firsthand reporting, and packed with information–on maternal mortality, genital cutting, sex-selective abortion, dowry deaths, domestic violence, child marriage, honor murder–Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, calls passionately, even angrily, for a grand campaign: “In this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.” Justice for women, they point out, is not only a matter of morality: when girls and women are healthy, educated, able to work and take part in public life, the whole society benefits.
Half the Sky has been criticized for using the culturally clueless rhetoric of “saving” and “rescuing” third world women, for scanting decades of indigenous activism and in general treating women’s human rights as the personal discovery of the authors. There’s some validity to these criticisms. But I’ve written my share of negative comments about Kristof’s early New York Times columns on the subject, and I think he’s come a long way since he gleefully described purchasing the freedom of teenage sex slaves, accused American feminists of indifference to childbirth injuries like fistula in Africa because childbirth was part of women’s “traditional role” and touted evangelical Christians as the best thing that ever happened to African womanhood when they were successfully pressuring the Bush administration to defund reproductive-health programs in favor of religion-infused abstinence education. Kristof and WuDunn are careful to mention explicitly feminist Western NGOs like Equality Now, as well as local grassroots organizations. They emphasize the agency, indeed heroism, of even the most abused victims–Mukhtar Mai, for instance, took her rapists to court and used her legal settlement to start a girls’ school.