The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically. These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development. Rewire is featuring commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad.
A compilation of the pieces posted on RH Reailty Check and on other blogs will be published on Friday, September 11th.
I find the conversation surrounding the publication of
Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book, Half
the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,
illuminating. The NYTimes’ devotion
of an entire issue of its magazine to the book’s publication provoked responses
of all kinds, including a certain consternation that it took a man’s work on
the issue to convert the Times folks
into believers. Those of us advocating for women in media find this to be
generally true: even if the subject is women, media executives would rather
hear about it from a man.
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That said, I am now reading the full book, and find it to
be an extremely valuable instrument to help us think through girls, women,
poverty, and sexual
exploitation—and how we can be truly useful going forward. Sheryl and Nick have
found, in the stories of individual girls and women, a way for us to understand
the deprivation of millions. They spell out the work of organizations small and
large to get us thinking about what we might do. Over the weekend on his blog,
Nick took up again the issue of menstruation and its impact on school
attendance of girls in developing countries. It is something so elemental that
we might not even think of it as a true barrier to education, to eventual
Mostly through my work as a board member of AMREF (The
African Medical Research Foundation ) I see first hand the gaping needs in
developing countries. We are the largest African Health organization on the
continent—we train 10,000 community health workers a year—and despite our
successes, fistula, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS are still with us.
I have interviewed women and girls in Africa: brutally raped
women in post-war Liberia– and school girls who escaped The Lord’s Liberation
Army in northern Uganda, haunted by the people they’d killed, to simply stay
alive. In Madagascar it is the
sexual exploitation of small children that concerns me. The problem of
foreigners flying in to have sex with impoverished children six and younger is
so prevalent, that the airlines hand out flyers warning that “Children are not
the souvenirs of tourists!"
But as committed as I am to working in the developing
world, I have a couple of thoughts about hearts breaking right here at home. We
have our own invisibles: they are mostly women of color, particularly black
women with staggering infant mortality and maternal mortality rates, lack of
insurance, heightened death from breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Illness
and early death– and permanent residence in the bottom rung of our so-called
economic ladder– make for an endangered group right here in our midst.
It is a group we need to keep in mind, because you won’t
see us very much in the media—home bred women of color don’t have the exotic appeal
of grand international rescue missions. But there are many of us who believe
that black women in America are now in full blown crisis, and require a
concerted effort of activists, philanthropists, big thinkers. Black women’s
voices are largely missing from our debate about health care, even as the
disparities in their care are the starkest.
And so we come to the crucial piece in all of this: media.
Many take this essential brick of our democracy for granted—or see it primarily
as a dispassionate information tool for the privileged. Around the world, and
right here at home, we need to think of
media as essential as a blood transfusion: life giving and life saving.
It’s why we work so hard at The Women’s Media Center to make sure women get to
tell the stories.
Last January, in Monrovia, Liberia, I visited the fistula
repair unit at John F. Kennedy Hospital. Here I met very young women who
through rape or unattended childbirth had been essentially torn apart, then
ostracized by their families. These patients cried and sang laments of
abandonment—but the surgery, and rehabilitation afterwards, would restore them.
Almost every woman on this brink of recovery had heard about the surgery on the
UN radio station, in her own dialect. Media as transfusion.
As we consider the rich global view Nick Kristoff and
Sheryl Wudunn have given us—let’s see what examples are in their work to
restore the lives of the women of color here in our own country.