The 2009 book Half the Sky is filled with stories that are heartbreaking and inspiring - and often both. The Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn gives you precisely what you'd expect from a book subtitled Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There are lots of anecdotes supporting the idea that women across the globe face horrific violence, discrimination, and marginalization. That's countered by personal stories that provide hope for change. And both are supported by statistics and academic studies.
"We think that one of the greatest moral challenges of our time is the gender inequality and the brutality that many women and girls face around the world because of their gender," said WuDunn - who will present a lecture version of the book on October 21 at St. Ambrose University - in a recent phone interview. "We also think one of the most effective ways to address a lot of the inequality is through educating girls and bringing them into the formal labor force ... . And we talk about a lot of these issues by telling stories of women who have been facing these challenges, and of other women and men who have come up with solutions."
But the book is also surprising - in ways that are both very small and very big.
Let's start with the small - a low-cost way to rid children of parasites that cause major problems.
A primary argument of Kristof's and WuDunn's book is that much oppression would disappear over time with improved education for women and girls. Readers might guess that building schools is one part of the solution, and they're correct.
But the authors aren't that simplistic. "School construction is expensive, and there is no way to verify that teachers will do their jobs," they write.
Furthermore, building more schools doesn't address the fact that 57 percent of children who drop out of existing elementary schools are girls.
They continue that it's far more cost-effective to de-worm students: "Intestinal worms affect children's physical and intellectual growth. When de-worming was introduced in the American South in the early 20th Century, schoolteachers were stunned by the impact: The children were suddenly far more alert and studious. Likewise, a landmark study in Kenya found that de-worming could decrease school absenteeism by a quarter."
They conclude: "Increasing school attendance by building schools ends up costing about $100 per year for every additional student enrolled. Boosting attendance by de-worming children costs only $4 per year per additional student enrolled."
And now the big - one number that distills discrimination against females into a single worldwide number.
Kristof and WuDunn write: "In places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish." They cite various demographic studies on the issue and conclude that between 60 million and 101 million women and girls are simply "missing" from the world population. Some were aborted because they were girls (in countries such as China and India). Some died in childbirth. Others were victims of gender-based violence. And still others died because they didn't receive the same health care as boys in their country. These millions of missing women and girls represent the global scope of gender inequality.
The magic of the book is that the enormity of that single number is diminished because of the modest solutions that Kristof and WuDunn present.
Explicit in the book is the idea that one person can take small actions to help - starting with the commitment-free act of signing up for an e-mail newsletter. The book closes with "Four Steps You Can Take in the Next 10 Minutes," a challenge to readers to do more than bemoan the status of women in the world.
Throughout, Half the Sky looks at the massive problem and sees hundreds or thousands of bite-sized solutions.
Improving education is best long-term strategy, WuDunn said - although its effects will develop over decades. "The more you educate people ... they can think for themselves," she said. In many cultures, women are not considered thinking, intelligent beings, and "if you can actually arm a woman - arm a girl - with a little bit more knowledge, she has a little bit more confidence in thinking for herself."
In addition to education, the book touts microfinance - small loans or gifts to individuals - as an effective way to combat subjugation.
Half the Sky opens with Srey Rath, a Cambodian teenager who was forced into prostitution. After her escape, she secured $400 from an aid group to get started as a street vendor - a profession in which she's thrived.
The story illustrates that the gap between oppression and independence is often small - and that it's likely more effective to persistently chip away at this huge problem over time than to try to come up with one coordinated response. "It's fine to hold UN conferences on education," the authors write, "but sometimes it does more good to allocate the money to projects on the ground."
In that vein, the book's three suggested major initiatives are global but still decidedly modest: a five-year, $10-billion education initiative focused on Africa and Asia; a drive to iodize salt in poor countries "to prevent tens of millions of children from losing approximately 10 IQ points each as a result of iodine deficiency while their brains are still being formed in the uterus"; and "a 12-year, $1.6-billion project to eradicate obstetric fistula [holes that develop during childbirth], while laying the groundwork for a major international assault on maternal mortality."
WuDunn said that she and Kristof didn't set out focused on providing relatively-low-cost solutions. "We were just trying to find out what is effective," she said, and many approaches simply don't cost that much money.
The seed for Half the Sky was planted in China - although it took years to develop. Kristof and WuDunn covered 1989's Tiananmen Square massacre for the New York Times, and they write that the following year they ran across a demographic study finding that "39,000 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. ... The result is that as many infant girls die unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died in the one incident in Tiananmen. Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed."
While this discovery was alarming, the authors didn't yet see the bigger picture. "We thought it was a terrible thing," WuDunn said, "but we also thought that it was just China" - the cultural bias favoring boys over girls.
Yet they found similar patterns of oppression in other parts of Asia, and then in Africa. "After that," WuDunn said, "things began to make us wonder whether or not this was a global phenomenon."
(Half the Sky focuses on the developing countries and spends little time on the United States. WuDunn said the couple's new book - A Path Appears, released last month - attempts to correct that by also shining a light on problems and solutions in wealthier countries.)
In the five years since Half the Sky was published, WuDunn said, the plight of women worldwide has become a much more prominent issue. "I think there's much greater awareness," WuDunn said, citing the engagement of major companies such as ExxonMobil and Intel. "This is an issue that development experts have been propagating for a long time, and it's just taken a long time to spread the word. We were part of helping spread the word."
The book itself has become something of a phenomenon, too - adapted into a PBS documentary, for example, and becoming an online game.
"We never planned it from the beginning," WuDunn said of Half the Sky's ongoing life. "We [just] published a book."
The most surprising thing to come out of the book, she added, was hearing of someone who was inspired to quit a job to move to India: "It's great that people are trying to come up with ways to do something," she said.
But, she and the book stress, doing something doesn't require such radical action.
"We're not asking people to stop everything and drop everything and go off to India," she said. "You can fold in a participation in or contribution to a larger cause into your daily life."
Sheryl WuDunn will present the lecture "Half the Sky" on Tuesday, October 21, at St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center (on Gaines Street between Locust and Lombard streets). The 7 p.m. lecture is free and open to the public.
For more information on Half the Sky, visit HalfTheSkyMovement.org.