Half the sky, p.1

Half the Sky, page 1

 

Half the Sky
 



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Half the Sky


  ALSO BY NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF AND SHERYL WUDUNN

  Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia

  China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power

  For our children: Gregory, Geoffrey, and Caroline.

  Thanks for your love and patience when research for this book

  meant grumpy or absent parents and less cheering at your

  soccer games. You’ve enriched our journeys through

  difficult and oppressive countries, and you’re

  wonderful kids to be arrested with!

  And for all those on the front lines around the globe,

  saving the world, one woman at a time.

  Women hold up half the sky.

  —CHINESE PROVERB

  CONTENTS

  INTRODUCTION The Girl Effect

  CHAPTER ONE Emancipating Twenty-First-Century Slaves

  Fighting Slavery from Seattle

  CHAPTER TWO Prohibition and Prostitution

  Rescuing Girls Is the Easy Part

  CHAPTER THREE Learning to Speak Up

  The New Abolitionists

  CHAPTER FOUR Rule by Rape

  Mukhtar’s School

  CHAPTER FIVE The Shame of “Honor”

  “Study Abroad”—in the Congo

  CHAPTER SIX Maternal Mortality—One Woman a Minute

  A Doctor Who Treats Countries, Not Patients

  CHAPTER SEVEN Why Do Women Die in Childbirth?

  Edna’s Hospital

  CHAPTER EIGHT Family Planning and the “God Gulf”

  Jane Roberts and Her 34 Million Friends

  CHAPTER NINE Is Islam Misogynistic?

  The Afghan Insurgent

  CHAPTER TEN Investing in Education

  Ann and Angeline

  CHAPTER ELEVEN Microcredit: The Financial Revolution

  A CARE Package for Goretti

  CHAPTER TWELVE The Axis of Equality

  Tears over Time Magazine

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN Grassroots vs. Treetops

  Girls Helping Girls

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN What You Can Do

  Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes

  Appendix: Organizations Supporting Women

  Acknowledgments

  Notes

  INTRODUCTION

  The Girl Effect

  What would men be without women? Scarce, sir, mighty scarce.

  —MARK TWAIN

  Srey Rath is a self-confident Cambodian teenager whose black hair tumbles over a round, light brown face. She is in a crowded street market, standing beside a pushcart and telling her story calmly, with detachment. The only hint of anxiety or trauma is the way she often pushes her hair from in front of her black eyes, perhaps a nervous tic. Then she lowers her hand and her long fingers gesticulate and flutter in the air with incongruous grace as she recounts her odyssey.

  Rath is short and small-boned, pretty, vibrant, and bubbly, a wisp of a girl whose negligible stature contrasts with an outsized and outgoing personality. When the skies abruptly release a tropical rain shower that drenches us, she simply laughs and rushes us to cover under a tin roof, and then cheerfully continues her story as the rain drums overhead. But Rath’s attractiveness and winning personality are perilous bounties for a rural Cambodian girl, and her trusting nature and optimistic self-assuredness compound the hazard.

  When Rath was fifteen, her family ran out of money, so she decided to go work as a dishwasher in Thailand for two months to help pay the bills. Her parents fretted about her safety, but they were reassured when Rath arranged to travel with four friends who had been promised jobs in the same Thai restaurant. The job agent took the girls deep into Thailand and then handed them to gangsters who took them to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Rath was dazzled by her first glimpses of the city’s clean avenues and gleaming high-rises, including at the time the world’s tallest twin buildings; it seemed safe and welcoming. But then thugs sequestered Rath and two other girls inside a karaoke lounge that operated as a brothel. One gangster in his late thirties, a man known as “the boss,” took charge of the girls and explained that he had paid money for them and that they would now be obliged to repay him. “You must find money to pay off the debt, and then I will send you back home,” he said, repeatedly reassuring them that if they cooperated they would eventually be released.

  Rath was shattered when what was happening dawned on her. The boss locked her up with a customer, who tried to force her to have sex with him. She fought back, enraging the customer. “So the boss got angry and hit me in the face, first with one hand and then with the other,” she remembers, telling her story with simple resignation. “The mark stayed on my face for two weeks.” Then the boss and the other gangsters raped her and beat her with their fists.

  “You have to serve the customers,” the boss told her as he punched her. “If not, we will beat you to death. Do you want that?” Rath stopped protesting, but she sobbed and refused to cooperate actively. The boss forced her to take a pill; the gangsters called it “the happy drug” or “the shake drug.” She doesn’t know exactly what it was, but it made her head shake and induced lethargy, happiness, and compliance for about an hour. When she wasn’t drugged, Rath was teary and insufficiently compliant—she was required to beam happily at all customers—so the boss said he would waste no more time on her: She would agree to do as he ordered or he would kill her. Rath then gave in. The girls were forced to work in the brothel seven days a week, fifteen hours a day. They were kept naked to make it more difficult for them to run away or to keep tips or other money, and they were forbidden to ask customers to use condoms. They were battered until they smiled constantly and simulated joy at the sight of customers, because men would not pay as much for sex with girls with reddened eyes and haggard faces. The girls were never allowed out on the street or paid a penny for their work.

  “They just gave us food to eat, but they didn’t give us much because the customers didn’t like fat girls,” Rath says. The girls were bused, under guard, back and forth between the brothel and a tenth-floor apartment where a dozen of them were housed. The door of the apartment was locked from the outside. However, one night, some of the girls went out onto their balcony and pried loose a long, five-inch-wide board from a rack used for drying clothes. They balanced it precariously between their balcony and one on the next building, twelve feet away. The board wobbled badly, but Rath was desperate, so she sat astride the board and gradually inched across.

  “There were four of us who did that,” she says. “The others were too scared, because it was very rickety. I was scared, too, and I couldn’t look down, but I was even more scared to stay. We thought that even if we died, it would be better than staying behind. If we stayed, we would die as well.”

  Once on the far balcony, the girls pounded on the window and woke the surprised tenant. They could hardly communicate with him because none of them spoke Malay, but the tenant let them into his apartment and then out its front door. The girls took the elevator down and wandered the silent streets until they found a police station and stepped inside. The police first tried to shoo them away, then arrested the girls for illegal immigration. Rath served a year in prison under Malaysia’s tough anti-immigrant laws, and then she was supposed to be repatriated. She thought a Malaysian policeman was escorting her home when he drove her to the Thai border—but then he sold her to a trafficker, who peddled her to a Thai brothel.

  Rath’s saga offers a glimpse of the brutality inflicted routinely on women and girls in much of the world, a malignancy that is slowly gaining recognition as one of the paramount human rights problems of this century.

  The issues involved, however, have barely registered on the global agenda. Indeed, when we began reporti
ng about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation. It was difficult back then to envision the Council on Foreign Relations fretting about maternal mortality or female genital mutilation. Back then, the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for. We preferred to probe the recondite “serious issues.”

  So this book is the outgrowth of our own journey of awakening as we worked together as journalists for The New York Times. The first milestone in that journey came in China. Sheryl is a Chinese-American who grew up in New York City, and Nicholas is an Oregonian who grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, Oregon. After we married, we moved to China, where seven months later we found ourselves standing on the edge of Tiananmen Square watching troops fire their automatic weapons at prodemocracy protesters. The massacre claimed between four hundred and eight hundred lives and transfixed the world. It was the human rights story of the year, and it seemed just about the most shocking violation imaginable.

  Then, the following year, we came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that outlined a human rights violation that had claimed tens of thousands more lives. This study found that thirty-nine thousand baby girls die annually in China because parents don’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive—and that is just in the first year of life. One Chinese family-planning official, Li Honggui, explained it this way: “If a boy gets sick, the parents may send him to the hospital at once. But if a girl gets sick, the parents may say to themselves, ‘Well, let’s see how she is tomorrow.’” The result is that as many infant girls die unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died in the one incident at Tiananmen. Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.

  A similar pattern emerged in other countries, particularly in South Asia and the Muslim world. In India, a “bride burning”—to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry—takes place approximately once every two hours, but these rarely constitute news. In the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Pakistan, five thousand women and girls have been doused in kerosene and set alight by family members or in-laws—or, perhaps worse, been seared with acid—for perceived disobedience just in the last nine years. Imagine the outcry if the Pakistani or Indian governments were burning women alive at those rates. Yet when the government is not directly involved, people shrug.

  When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. Partly that is because we journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls. We journalists weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball on this subject: Less than 1 percent of U.S. foreign aid is specifically targeted to women and girls.

  Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, has developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. “More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Even poor regions like most of Latin America and much of Africa have more females than males. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), India has 108, and Pakistan has 111. This has nothing to do with biology, and indeed the state of Kerala in the southwest of India, which has championed female education and equality, has the same excess of females that exists in the United States.

  Naeema Azar, a real estate agent, was burned with acid in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, allegedly by her ex-husband. Since the acid blinded her, her twelve-year-old son, Ahmed Shah, guides her everywhere. (Nicholas D. Kristof)

  The implication of the sex ratios, Professor Sen found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for “missing women” of between 60 million and 101 million. Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.

  In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal. In India, for example, mothers are less likely to take their daughters to be vaccinated than their sons—that alone accounts for one fifth of India’s missing females—while studies have found that, on average, girls are brought to the hospital only when they are sicker than boys taken to the hospital. All told, girls in India from one to five years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys the same age. The best estimate is that a little Indian girl dies from discrimination every four minutes.

  Ummi Ababiya, a thirteen-year-old Ethiopian girl, in an emergency feeding station in southern Ethiopia. Her mother, Zahra, right, said that all the males in the family were well-nourished. Of the dozens of children in the feeding center, almost all were girls, reflecting the way parents typically give priority to boys when food is scarce. Such discrimination kills up to 2 million girls each year worldwide. (Nicholas D. Kristof)

  A big, bearded Afghan named Sedanshah once told us that his wife and son were sick. He wanted both to survive, he said, but his priorities were clear: A son is an indispensable treasure, while a wife is replaceable. He had purchased medication for the boy alone. “She’s always sick,” he gruffly said of his wife, “so it’s not worth buying medicine for her.”

  Modernization and technology can aggravate the discrimination. Since the 1990s, the spread of ultrasound machines has allowed pregnant women to find out the sex of their fetuses—and then get abortions if they are female. In Fujian Province, China, a peasant raved to us about ultrasound: “We don’t have to have daughters anymore!”

  To prevent sex-selective abortion, China and India now bar doctors and ultrasound technicians from telling a pregnant woman the sex of her fetus. Yet that is a flawed solution. Research shows that when parents are banned from selectively aborting female fetuses, more of their daughters die as infants. Mothers do not deliberately dispatch infant girls they are obligated to give birth to, but they are lackadaisical in caring for them. A development economist at Brown University, Nancy Qian, quantified the wrenching trade-off: On average, the deaths of fifteen infant girls can be avoided by allowing one hundred female fetuses to be selectively aborted.

  The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.

  In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

  The owners of the Thai brothel to which Rath was sold did not beat her and did not constantly guard her. So two months later, she was able to escape and make her way back to Cambodia.

  Upon her return, Rath met a social worker who put her in touch with an aid group that helps girls who have been trafficked start new lives. The group, American Assistance for Cambodia, used $400 in donated funds to buy a small cart and a starter selection of goods so that Rath could become a street peddler. She found a good spot i
n the open area between the Thai and Cambodian customs offices in the border town of Poipet. Travelers crossing between Thailand and Cambodia walk along this strip, the size of a football field, and it is lined with peddlers selling drinks, snacks, and souvenirs.

  Rath outfitted her cart with shirts and hats, costume jewelry, notebooks, pens, and small toys. Now her good looks and outgoing personality began to work in her favor, turning her into an effective saleswoman. She saved and invested in new merchandise, her business thrived, and she was able to support her parents and two younger sisters. She married and had a son, and she began saving for his education.

  In 2008, Rath turned her cart into a stall, and then also acquired the stall next door. She also started a “public phone” business by charging people to use her cell phone. So if you ever cross from Thailand into Cambodia at Poipet, look for a shop on your left, halfway down the strip, where a teenage girl will call out to you, smile, and try to sell you a souvenir cap. She’ll laugh and claim she’s giving you a special price, and she’s so bubbly and appealing that she’ll probably make the sale.

  Srey Rath and her son in front of her shop in Cambodia (Nicholas D. Kristof)

  Rath’s eventual triumph is a reminder that if girls get a chance, in the form of an education or a microloan, they can be more than baubles or slaves; many of them can run businesses. Talk to Rath today—after you’ve purchased that cap—and you find that she exudes confidence as she earns a solid income that will provide a better future for her sisters and for her young son. Many of the stories in this book are wrenching, but keep in mind this central truth: Women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.

 
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