Women’s Rights in the Spotlight

This week the New York Times Magazine focuses on “Saving the World’s Women.” An essay by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, titled “The Women’s Crusade,” is at the center of an issue that explores women’s causes around the world.

Kristof and WuDunn make a strong case for the need to focus international efforts on helping women:

Yet if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. “Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos.

Reinforcing this message, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have co-authored an article for the Huffington Post, “Taking Women’s Rights Seriously.” Both leaders put forth concrete goals and promises, including Brown’s renewed commitment to addressing women’s issues through the United Nations:

The UN has a leading role, yet its response has been too fragmented and has lacked coherence. In 2006 a High Level Panel recommended a new, powerful agency that could empower women throughout the world.

…It must be urgently established with strong, high-level leadership to support national efforts and strengthen co-ordination of the UN’s collective resolve to improve the lives of girls and women.

As evidence of Britain’s commitment we will at least double the UK’s core funding for the UN’s work on women’s equality through this new body, once established. We will also work tirelessly over the next three weeks to help make the agency a reality by the end of this current session of the General Assembly.

Both the New York Times Magazine and the article by Brown and Sirleaf reference an upcoming book by Kristof and WuDunn, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

We may be about to see a dramatic change in the level of attention paid to vital women’s issues around the world. As girls and women around the world struggle to get the medical care, education, political rights, protection, and respect that they deserve, let us hope that we do see this change. It would not come a moment too soon.

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1 Response to Women’s Rights in the Spotlight

  1. Tom Boone says:

    I was able to read most of an advance copy of this book before Bill Drayton (founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public) snatched it away and ran off with it on his annual 2-week hiking trip to the mountains. I think this has to be the most important book – not just for women’s rights globally but for human rights – published in my memory.

    Kristof and WuDunn weave together a most compelling story of how culture and customs historically suppress women. They tackle many tough, taboo topics – for example honor killing. But more importantly, they champion the stories of heroic women worldwide wholly committed to changing the many evils of the status quo.
    What is more, they posit a kind of general framework theory that the really important advances in human rights that are going to be made in the near future are going to be brought about by these entrepreneurial pioneering women. In essence, that the backbone of the human rights movement and of real change across all societies is going to be a direct function of brave women who give themselves permission to say “NO” to thousands of years of (to most Westerners) unimaginable oppressive cultural customs and who take it upon themselves to lead to a new way. Once you have read the book, it is very hard, if not impossible, to disagree with Kristof and WuDunn’s general theme. To wit, the brave women of Iran who took to the streets to protest the results of the recent election.

    Among many other “super” women, HALF THE SKY spotlights the following inspirational Ashoka Fellows:

    • Sunitha Krishnan (India), founder of Prajwala, a citizen sector organization in Hyderabad, India, fighting forced prostitution and sex trafficking, rescuing women and children from sexual exploitation, incestual rape, sexual torture, and abuse in prostitution. Her organization helps former prostitutes learn vocational skills so they can move into new careers. “Prajwala” means “an eternal flame”.

    • Sakena Yacoobi (Afghanistan), founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a citizen sector organization providing teacher training to Afghan women, educating and fostering education for girls and boys, and providing health education to women and children. Her organization also runs fixed and mobile health clinics that provide family planning services. Sakena holds the distinction of having been Ashoka’s first Afghan Fellow. Educating women and girls was banned under the Taliban and is controversial under Islamic law.

    • Roshaneh Zafar (Pakistan), founder of Pakistani microfinance lender, Kashf. A former World Bank employee, she was inspired after a chance meeting with Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank. “Kashf” means “miracle” and Kashf is indeed fostering a miracle by leveraging microfinance to women to transform the role of women in Pakistani society and bringing about a poverty-free world. To date, Kashf supports 305,038 families in Pakistan, has disbursed $202 million, and has 52 branches nationwide.

    I am not alone in my enthusiasm for this book! Last Tuesday, September 15, 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (“UNODC”) hosted a panel discussion and booksigning with Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn in the UN Trusteeship Council Chamber at UN Headquarters. All 550 seats in the Trusteeship Council Chamber were filled. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered opening remarks. Special thanks also should go to Simone Monasebian and Anna Rosario Kennedy of the UNODC who accomplished the herculean task of organizing this event.

    Five out of five stars. An absolute must read for anyone who cares about women’s rights or human rights. A genuine eye popper that moves so fast, tackles so much that has hitherto been taboo and unmovable, and interweaves the unbelievably positive stories of the very heroic women already leading and creating change in a tapestry that is glimpse of a brave and very different, humanitarian new world.

    Once you pick this book up, you will not be able to put it down. And once you have read it, you will be moved to help bring about tomorrow. Absolute proof that the glass (or the sky) is half full. We just have to give ourselves permission to make change. Or as Gandhi said, “we must be the change we wish to see.”

    – Tom Boone, Ashoka

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