Half the sky

NC State, like many colleges now, asks its incoming freshmen to all read the same book for a “common reading” experience.  On the day before classes start, the students break into small groups to discuss the book with a faculty member.  This year I was asked to be a discussion leader and I was happy to participate because 1) I always love discussing books; and 2) the choice was Half the Sky by the husband-wife team of Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn and I’d heard a number of really intersting interviews with them about it.  (I’ve also got a soft spot for Kristoff as he was the first speaker in our “American Values” speaker series that my department– and me personally on the committee– help bring about every year).

Anyway, the book.  Not many things in my life are truly eye-opening any more, but this definitely was.  Yeah, I knew women had it pretty bad in the 3rd world, but really had no idea the level of endemic cultural depravity that sees gang rape of a female as a suitable punishment for a crime committed by a male relative or sees nothing wrong with a brothel that traffics in 12-year old sex slaves.  And, yes, literally slaves with no rights of their own.  Not to mention, the maternal health issues (fistulas– yuck!) and the fact that many families thing it is more important to spend their money on beer than educating their daughters.  I told a friend this was “the most horrible book I’ve ever read.”  I’m glad I read it, and the book is quite engaging, but wow, the level of gender-based depravity and inhumanity is just astounding and truly shocking.  My own charitable giving in the future will certainly be shaped by what I learned here (let’s face it, I’m not going to Rwanda to work on a micro-lending project), as will my teaching.

As the authors frequently point out, besides being morally bankrupt, such cultural practices are just plain stupid and self-defeating.  You want economic growth and a thriving community?  Best not to completely waste fully half of your human resources.  It is encouraging to hear that the developing nations that are making the most progress are those that have figured this out and are emphasizing the rights and education of women.  You want to pull your country out of poverty– it starts by educating women.

Since, of course, most of you will never actually read the book, you can listen to the podcast of the authors on Diane Rehm.  Or even better, you can watch Shery WuDunn’s TED talk, which I actually discovered just by happenstance yesterday on Ezra Klein’s blog.  Seriously, do me a favor and watch it.  Or at least multi-task and listen while you do something else.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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