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Breaking a Conspiracy of Silence

This past July, a little over a year after the United Nations Security Council finally declared rape a crime of war, the parents of Taraneh Mousavi, a twenty-eight-year-old beautician from Tehran, received a call from an anonymous stranger. The young woman had been missing for weeks, ever since she’d attended a post-election rally at the Ghoba mosque; it was rumored that she was being held by Basiji militiamen. The caller said that Mousavi had had “an accident,” and was in the hospital with “tears in her womb and her anus.” Mousavi’s parents rushed to the place where she was supposed to be, but she wasn’t there. They still have not found her—or her body.

UN Resolution 1820 expressly foresaw the situation that Taraneh Mousavi found herself in on June 19, one year to the day of its adoption. ” Noting,” it says,

…that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.

There are many ways to define war, just as there are many ways to violate a woman’s body.

It would be naive to imagine that a string of tortuously constructed sentences issued by an organization whose own “peacekeepers” have been implicated in the rapes of girls and women in Sierra Leone, Congo, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Cambodia, and Bosnia, among other places, would reverse or forestall a practice that dates back to the Mongols, and likely before them. Indeed, as the playwright Eve Ensler wrote in The Washington Post the day that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was supposed to issue a one-year assessment of the resolution, rape in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where girls as young as three are systematically brutalized, has actually doubled and in some areas tripled in that time. As she pointed out, “The girl children born of rape are now being raped.”

Ban’s report, when it was finally released, was full of recommendations to gather

more and better data to enhance our understanding of the various forms of sexual violence in conflict and its aftermath, including its magnitude, nature and risk factors; the profile and the motivation of perpetrators; the consequences of this violence; and the effectiveness of programmes and prevention strategies.

It urged

State and non-State parties to armed conflicts to ensure that civilian superiors and military commanders use their authority and powers to prevent sexual violence and punish crimes committed by subordinates, failing which they themselves must be punished.

Still, as toothless as all this reads, UN Resolution 1820 was a small step toward ending what Jan Egeland, the former United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called recently “one of the biggest conspiracies of silence in history.”

One party to that conspiracy has been the mainstream media, which, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in their stellar new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is what happens when a phenomenon is extensive, entrenched, and so common as to be perpetually old news even while it’s happening. The one consistent exception has been Kristof himself, in the column he’s written for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times since 2001. On a page where others can be relied on to elevate the conventional wisdom, Kristof earnestly takes up the cause of the poor and oppressed of the world, most of them women, and of those who work on their behalf. For him, it seems, the traditional newsroom dynamic is reversed: the fact that another girl has been denied an education, or sold to a brothel at seven, or raped by the police to whom she was reporting that she had been raped, or left to die because of an obstetric fistula that has left her leaking urine and feces is worthy of comment because it has happened again, and will keep on happening until something—moral outrage, jurisprudence, grace—intervenes. In the meantime, and to press for change, Kristof invites us all to bear witness with him.

It wasn’t always like this. As Kristof and WuDunn, who is both his writing partner and his wife, point out, when they were young reporters, newly married and newly posted to China for the Times,

We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear proliferation. 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.”

Then Tiananmen Square happened, and the recondite was overtaken by the intractable but urgent issue of human rights. (The two reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China.) And then they stumbled upon another, less dramatic human rights story, the widespread practice by Chinese parents of withholding medical treatment for their baby girls, who were, therefore, dying in infancy in statistically anomalous numbers. “Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage,” they write, “and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.”

While working as journalists, the pair took up the fate of girls in China, and once they did so, a Pandora’s box of gender-based cruelty and brutality was cracked open, and not just there. Sexual trafficking and slavery in Asia and Eastern Europe, honor killings in India, rape as a tactic of war, and female genital mutilation are now part of the international conversation, in no small part due to their reporting for the Times, and to the editorial platform afforded Kristof by the paper.

And just as Kristof is unabashed in his use of that platform to spread a message, he and WuDunn are very clear that they have not written Half the Sky simply to document the condition of child brides in Ethiopia and girls forced into prostitution in Cambodia, but to inspire readers to change the dynamic and shift the paradigm. “Let us be clear about this up front,” they say in their introduction. “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.” It is a testament to their skills as writers and reporters that they’ve managed to write this call to action without having to raise their voices. The facts, as they learned long ago in China, speak loudly enough.

And what are some of those facts? A girl in India dies every four minutes because her parents don’t believe she’s worthy of medical care; a third of all women worldwide are beaten at home; women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined ; according to the United Nations, 90 percent of females over the age of three were sexually abused in parts of Liberia during the civil war there; there are, very conservatively, according to the British medical journal The Lancet, ten million child sex slaves. If Kristof and WuDunn have their way, righting “gender inequality in the developing world” will be embraced as the moral battle of the twenty-first century, as totalitarianism was in the twentieth and slavery was in the century before that.

For Westerners, the words “gender inequality” are likely to suggest pay differentials and glass ceilings and old-boy networks. For the women and girls Kristof and WuDunn write about, gender inequality is more elemental. It takes the form of sexual slavery and other kinds of bondage; rape and other kinds of physical and mental assaults; and the withholding of medicine, food, and other privations; and it issues from a belief so fixed as to be unimpeachable: women are less human than men. (Not that they are less worthy, but that they are, fundamentally, less human.) When this belief is coupled with religious and political ideology, class bias and racial supremacy, women’s bodies also become tools for ethnic “cleansing,” for political intimidation, and for genocide. If this is old news for being commonplace, might it mean that in some deep place most of us believe it, too?

Let’s hope not. Let’s say, rather, that the consequences of gender inequality are so vast, and the numbers those consequences generate so huge, that they diminish feelings of connection and urgency. The lens through which we’re looking gets longer and longer, and everything seems far and removed. Psychologists (and marketers) understand this. In an experiment to determine what motivates individuals to donate money to charity, researchers conducted an experiment in which subjects, divided into three groups, were each asked to give $5 to alleviate third-world hunger. The more data they had, the less likely they were to part with their money:

One group was told the money would go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl in Mali. Another group was told that the money would go to address malnutrition among 21 million Africans. The third group was told that the donations would go to Rokia,…but this time her own hunger was presented as part of a background tapestry of global hunger, with some statistics thrown in. People were much more willing to donate to Rokia than to 21 million hungry people, and even a mention of the larger problem made people less inclined to help her.

It’s not for nothing that donor-driven NGOs like Save the Children fund-raise by asking people to “sponsor” particular children in need (even though the money doesn’t go to them directly), or that the remarkably successful Internet fund-raising group Kiva is able to raise tens of millions of dollars in $25 increments from people all over the world by posting the photographs and stories of individual entrepreneurs in need of a small loan to start a home-based business, like selling baskets or running a soft-drinks kiosk. People connect with each other, not with statistics. (In another study, researchers found that after doing math problems, people were much less likely to give to those in need.)

Conscious of this research, Kristof and WuDunn follow the Save the Children strategy themselves, recognizing that if their call to action is to succeed off the page, they need to show, not tell, on it. And show they do: every larger point, about human trafficking laws, for example, or global maternal health, is introduced by an explicit, moving, illustrative anecdote, so that the larger narrative is suffused with stories that keep the issues focused and comprehensible. This alone would have made Half the Sky a valuable and instructive book.

But Kristof and WuDunn are more ambitious for both themselves and their readers. By telling the story of Rath, a Cambodian teenager who was sold twice to brothels in Malaysia and Thailand, for instance, or Mahabouba, whose body was not big enough to deliver the baby she was carrying from the sixty-year old man who owned her, they aspire to do more than document what might seem to be unbearable, outrageous hardships. Rather, they mean to demonstrate that the obdurate is assailable; that it is, in fact, possible to “turn oppression into opportunity”; and that the experience of a young woman like Rath is replicable: she escaped sexual slavery, which is an accomplishment in itself, and has gone on to become a successful entrepreneur, selling hats and bags and phone calls out of a cart she was able to buy and stock with a $400 loan from an aid group, and now is married, has a son, and supports her extended family.

This has been the message for the past twenty-six years of Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economics professor, Nobel Prize winner, and recent recipient of the United States Medal of Freedom, who founded the Grameen Bank. Grameen pioneered the concept of microcredit, the granting of small loans to people who otherwise would have no access to money to run a business. These, historically, have been the poorest of the poor; in Bangladesh, Grameen now even loans money to street beggars. The businesses are “micro,” too, but in almost every case they have enabled recipients to earn enough money to lift themselves and their families out of the direst conditions. In almost every case—nearly 100 percent—the loans are repaid, despite their high interest rates (which arguably are substantially lower than those of the typical predatory lenders to whom poor people have access). So far, in Bangladesh alone, Grameen has loaned more than $6 billion. From its recently opened office in Jackson Heights, Queens, it has already distributed over $1 million.

When Yunus and a few of his students started Grameen in the village of Jobra, it was an experiment. They wanted to see what would happen if they took the top-down model of economic development—in which “humanitarian” aid flowed from large and distant institutions like the World Bank to other large and distant institutions, like governments themselves, in an effort to spur overall economic growth, or didn’t flow at all because the poorest of the poor were considered too poor to handle money responsibly—and turned it upside down. As Yunus writes in his most recent book, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism:

In their pursuit of growth, policymakers are focusing on efforts to energize well-established institutions. It never occurs to them that these institutions themselves may be contributing to creating or sustaining poverty. Institutions and policies that created poverty cannot be entrusted with the task of eliminating it.

Moreover, he writes, “the focus, in development strategy, [is] on material accumulation and achievement. This focus needs to be shifted to human beings, their initiative and enterprise.”

Once Yunus and his team began to lend money, something unexpected happened: they found that women, who in most cases had never before handled money, were much more likely than men to use it responsibly and pay it back. Women tended to invest their earnings in their families—in education, housing, and health care. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to spend it on themselves. “Thus,” Yunus concluded, “lending to women creates a cascading effect that brings social benefits as well as economic benefits to the whole family and ultimately to the entire community.” Grameen has found the same pattern—men play, women pay—in every country in which it operates. In short order, Grameen changed course: its loans would be to women; if a man in the family wanted a loan, he could ask his wife to apply, and it would be up to her to decide if he was a good credit risk. Inevitably, the power dynamic between them shifted.

The question from development economists, looking at the work of the Grameen Bank or at the opportunities about which Kristof and WuDunn write, and assessing their effectiveness, is typically one of scale: Where does the economic (and emotional) turn-around of a young woman like Rath, the beneficiary of a small infusion of cash, fit in the big picture of chronic, widespread, desperate poverty? Where, for that matter, do thousands of women like Rath fit in when “real” progress is measured by an expansion of the gross domestic product (GDP)? One answer is that top-down measurements like GDP are not especially sensitive to the vagaries of poverty; an increase in the GDP in a poor country does not perforce translate into a rise in the fortunes of poor people. Another is that small, grassroots efforts that invite or demand the active participation of beneficiaries are poised to spread and compound wealth in ways that can’t be measured directly.

Consider the case of Sekena Yacoobi, who grew up in Herat, Afghanistan, found her way to a university in the United States, and then moved to Pakistan to work in the Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar. Yacoobi opened a school for girls there, and within a year had 15,000 students. When the Taliban made it illegal for girls to go to school in Afghanistan, Yacoobi, at great risk, created a network of “secret schools.” According to Kristof and WuDunn, many of the women currently enrolled at Kabul University were those secret students; Yacoobi pretty much singlehandedly created an Afghan female intelligentsia. Now she runs the Afghan Institute of Learning in Kabul, providing education and services to 350,000 women and children. These include health clinics, family planning clinics (where condoms are distributed), and workshops where women can learn embroidery, hair styling, and computer science. “Education is the key issue for overcoming poverty, for overcoming war,” Yacoobi told Kristof and WuDunn. “If people are educated, then women will not be abused or tortured. They will also stand up and say ‘My child should not be married so young.’”

And then there is Edna Adan, whose unlikely trajectory took her from Somalia to the World Health Organization, where she worked for many years, traveling the world. A nurse by training, her dream was to return to her homeland, the breakaway, unrecognized country of Somaliland, which has the highest infant and maternal mortality rate in the world, and build a clean, modern maternity hospital. To raise capital Adan cashed in her WHO pension and sold her car, then ran out of money before a roof could go up. The United Nations and other NGOs that she approached turned down her request for funds to finish the hospital, and it looked like her project would be yet another failed effort, like so many that, according to Kristof and WuDunn, “litter” Africa.

But then Kristof’s colleague at the Times Ian Fisher wrote a story about Edna Adan’s hospital and two readers in Connecticut and two in Minnesota were moved to help her. They sent out fund-raising letters to friends and neighbors and raised the remaining capital. The Edna Adan Maternity Hospital now has sixty beds and seventy-six staff members, a blood bank, and an on-site lab. From its opening in 2002 until June of this year

it has admitted 8654 women, delivered 8810 babies, seen more than 62,000 patients in the outpatient clinic, performed nearly 107,000 laboratory tests, providing training courses in, amongst others, 3 year general nursing (3 classes), midwifery, laboratory techniques, first aid courses for school teachers, and computer literacy courses.

These numbers are one way to measure success. Another, oddly, comes by way of a letter Adan wrote to Kristof last year, which he posted on his blog:

I am writing to you in desperation because we have lost ten of our best qualified nurses and midwives to International NGOs who do not support us during the training but who snatch the best from us with salary offers that we cannot match. Somehow, we seem to have become victims of our success because our nurses are the best in the country. We train four times what our hospital needs but still cannot cover the demand for good and responsible nurses.

Kristof and WuDunn are not naive. They are quick to point out that good intentions sometimes go wrong, or are wrongheaded to begin with, and that sometimes good intentions are just not enough. Even so, small steps taken against intractable problems can be resounding. It is now pretty much taken for granted that educating girls has an ameliorating effect on almost every social indicator, most especially family income and family size, and that this in turn reduces the violence that stems from resource wars. An education doesn’t necessarily mean book-learning, either: one of the stipulations made by Edna Adan when she was building her hospital was that the brickmakers teach women their trade. Somaliland now has its first women brickmakers; those women now have a marketable skill. As Muhammad Yunus and his colleagues at Grameen have demonstrated, enabling women to enter the workforce itself leads to more education and the spread of literacy. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle.

Still, it’s a vicious world. Attitudes change slowly, but they do change. For the past two years, the United States Congress has been given the opportunity to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, authorizing over $1 billion to be spent on the kinds of programs highlighted by Kristof and WuDunn in Half the Sky. The act also is meant to make violence against women a diplomatic priority by establishing a women’s department in the State Department and USAID, so that this kind of violence will be a factor in foreign aid. The bill, which was introduced by Senator Richard Lugar and then Senator Joseph Biden, will be reintroduced until it passes. It won’t end the kinds of gender inequalities that Kristof and WuDunn chronicle, but it may have an effect comparable to William Wilberforce’s efforts to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which didn’t outlaw slavery itself but was a step toward abolition.

In the meantime, though, there are wars like the one in Congo, and repressive regimes like Iran’s, where sexual violence is practiced against girls and women; there is wholesale selling of girls and women across borders as well as within countries in unfathomable numbers; there is battery, which is so common as to be unremarkable, even in the West, and for every story of triumph over one atrocity or another, there are many more that share the same brutal ending. Handing out small loans isn’t going to fix the world, and neither is legislation passed in the United States Congress or a United Nations Resolution. But if the success of the microcredit movement has taught us anything, it’s that incremental change—change that happens house by house and community by community, especially when it is directed by women themselves—can be profound. Kristof and WuDunn tell us that, as Westerners, our most effective role in making it possible for half the world’s population to hold up their half of the sky may simply be to write checks so that Edna Adan can pay her nurses and Sakena Yacoobi can buy books for her students. Kristof and WuDunn, for their part, have found another way.

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