Friday, April 26, 2013

Half the Sky

This month, my book club decided to branch out and read a non-fiction book: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
This book is a chronicle by two award-winning journalists of the struggles of women in the developing world. Their focus is primarily on women who are desperately poor (or who reside in nations where poverty is pervasive) and the difficulties encountered in everyday life by such women. I enjoyed this book a great deal! I read it more quickly than I had expected, and the story-telling style certainly kept me engaged.

One thing that surprised me quite a bit about this book was the authors' willingness to identify issues as signals of sexism where that might not have been my first instinct. For example, the authors point out the tragedy of high rates of complications and death resulting from child birth. I was aware of the issue of maternal morbidity and mortality, though their descriptions certainly provided more detail as to the nature and scope of the problem. The authors take this a step further and explain their thesis that the reason maternal health care is not a bigger deal in the societies they focus on (or in the developed world, where aid is generated) is because of sexism. To me, that thesis is quite ambitious. I have health issues that aren't gender specific - but I still have no desire to receive medical care of any kind in the developing world. I don't think these authors actually wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to the state of health care regarding all types of ailments. But, I didn't see much in their analysis to support the differentiation between sexism and poverty as the root causes of this problem.

I heard about this book when it was first released a couple of years ago. I didn't immediately read it at the time because it seemed like my social network (at least, the online version) had nothing but negative things to say. I didn't look into this in great detail - I was simply discouraged by seeing only critical comments and links. When this book was selected for book club, I fell in line and figured that, if I hated it, it wouldn't be the first time! (Sorry, bookclubbers! We all know, sometimes it's a swing and a miss!) But, as it turned out, I didn't hate it at all! I quite enjoyed it, actually. It wasn't until after I finished reading the book that I decided to go back and find some of the critique that I had absorbed but ignored from the time it was released. The main themes of this critique seems to be that the book focuses on Westerners as saviors in the developing world, that women's issues in the developed world still exist but are ignored, and that the developing world continues to struggle because of the international economic climate driven by Westerners. If you're interested, the best of these critiques I read was written by Germaine Greer and is available here.

Having read the book, I think there is some validity to each of these concerns. However, I can't imagine a book anyone would want to read that effectively addressed the subject matter actually contained in Half the Sky along with these three other themes. Furthermore, I think the critique actually is in symbiosis with the material itself. If I hadn't read the book in the first place, how would I have been educated enough about the breadth and complexity of issues facing in women in the developing world to understand what the critic was talking about?

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