Yesterday at a lecture in Washington, D.C., husband-and-wife journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn introduced their new book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” The talk focused on empowering women as a means to break the cycle of poverty, with a particular emphasis on maternal health and maternal mortality. They hope people will “join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women's power as economic catalysts.”
A review of the book in the Washington Post left me thinking about the role that women really can play in ending poverty. According to Carolyn See, “These Pulitzer Prize-winning authors see the treatment of women in developing countries as the great story of this century, a moral issue, sure, but also as an economic one. What if by oppressing half their population, countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East have been shooting themselves in their collective foot?”
She goes on to say that “’Half the Sky’ is a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue.”
WuDunn and Kristof were joined for the discussion by Aparajita Gogoi, National Coordinator of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood–India, and Jérémie Zoungrana, National Advisor of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood–Burkina Faso and Rwanda. While WuDunn and Kristof focused on the stories of women on the ground whom they interviewed for the book, Gogoi and Zoungrana provided examples of the societal barriers that make women’s empowerment a challenge in their countries. All participants talked about the need for both social and economic empowerment.
In both its emergency relief and development projects, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has a special commitment to helping women gain equal access to life's basic necessities. Inherited hunger, which causes undernourished mothers to give birth to malnourished children, is a major impediment to child development. Thus maternal undernutrition endangers mothers and children alike. This is why programs like WFP’s Maternal-and-Child Health and Nutrition program, which provides nutritional assistance to pregnant and nursing mothers, are so important.
In 2000, world leaders met at the U.N. Headquarters in New York to establish the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which must be met by 2015. WFP’s mandate for meeting MDG 1 (to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger) is obvious. But WFP's food assistance can also play an important role in realizing several more of the eight MDGs: empowering women, reducing child and maternal mortality and improving maternal health.
”Half the Sky” discusses how to accomplish MDGs 3 and 5. MDG 3 is simple: promote gender equality and empower women. MDG 5 focuses on improving maternal health. The World Bank has a section dedicated to the MDGs on its website, stating, “When a country educates its girls, its mortality rates usually fall, fertility rates decline, and the health and education prospects of the next generation improve.”
Programs like WFP’s can improve gender equality and strengthen the partnership between men and women, leading to more effective food security and ultimately breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger.
Watch the discussion with Kristof and WuDunn.