A few years ago I was crossing the border between Cambodian and Thailand in order to renew a visa. It was a stinking hot day, I’d been up since 5am and those that know this particular crossing will testify that it is one of the world’s most vile locations.
A rather beautiful but utterly filthy, barefooted child approached me. She had heart breaking large brown eyes, ragged clothes and her thick dark hair had been bleached almost white on top by so many hours begging in the scorching sun. I gave her a small smile and made a glib joke about the salon doing a bad job on her highlights. A wide eyed American tourist next to me looked around with a frown and said: “Isn’t she a bit young to be having highlights put in her hair?”
I can’t help but think that Half The Sky, by American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist couple, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is for women like this. Women who have no idea that in some parts of the world, yes huge numbers still die in child birth; have their gentils cut; and are generally treated like utter shit. For although many have called this book a “revolution”, none of this information is new. And there are certainly other books covering these subjects, and they are usually better researched.
In her Guardian review, Germain Greer points out quite a few oversights. I would add to those the issue of population concern, which is mentioned frequently in the book.
Climate concerns we have over population growth is less to do with how many children are born in the poorest parts of the world, and more to do with how long people are living in the West. After all, infant mortality rates in the developing world remain staggeringly high, and the carbon footprint of a child in Niger is a tiny fraction of an average American’s.
In fact the impact the developed world has on the women in this book is largely ignored, except when they rush in as white knights to save the day. Greer points out that the West is hugely implicit in the trafficking of both women and children. In addition, issues like cotton subsides and the constant demand for cheap clothing keeps women in poverty. And poverty breeds abuse.
In fact, quite staggeringly, the authors suggest that the lives of Chinese women have actually been improved by sweat shops. They claim the work is preferable, and better paid, than agricultural work. It also, they argue, helps the wider economy.
But they skate over the fact that in order to make that extra money women have to work up to 90 hours a week. And there is no exploration of the impact this has on family life (for a heart wrenching account of how sweat shops destroy families watch Last Train Home). They also conveniently don’t mention that poor pay in sweat shops means we continue to enjoy cheap clothes and Western profits remain high too.
In its defence, Half the Sky is a powerful collection of personal testimonies involving issues that really do matter. There is a genuine sense of caring about the women whose stories are beautifully told by Kristoff and WuDunn. And if they are bringing these issues to a wider audience then more power to them.
The fear of course is that once home will Meg Ryan and the other celebrities featured in the TV show of the book really be able to claim a “life changing” experience? Or will their trip to meet these women become just another dinner party story or caption to a photo in Hello magazine?