This book changed my life

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Half the Sky: How to Change the World

I’ve never written a book review before – and I don’t intend to do one now. All I will say is simply that if you are interested in politics, international development and any issues relating to women’s rights should read the book Half The Sky: How to Change the World by two American journalists, Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn. I’ve just finished it, and I genuinely think it’s fair to say it changed the way I think about issues relating to women forever.

To quote from the opening chapter: “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. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.”

The phrase “half the sky” is from a quote from Mao Zedong, who for all his (massive) faults did mange to bring in some measures which benefitted women enormously. In fact the organisation Half the Sky  targets Chinese orphans in reference to this famous quote. This book looks at issues relating to the sex trade, war, maternal mortality, women’s involvement in politics, education – in short, all the things this blog writes about. It details real examples and individual cases, but counters it with how they fit into the worldwide scheme of poverty and development. The main thrust of the book is that if only half of the population of any country are being educated, working and contributing to the economy, then the country can only ever reach half of it’s potential. Some parts of this book are easier to swallow than others, inevitably, and some parts will make you cry and stay with you indefinitely. But what is so brilliant about it is the way that it takes a real hands-on, grass roots approach. The final chapter is entitled Four Steps you can take in the next ten minutes and the back is a full index of charities, NGOs and women’s groups worldwide that you can get involved with, and how to contact them. It is the bible of women’s rights and I know I will be referring to it again and again. Let me know what you think.

“Sensationally interesting – I think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed” – Washington Post

Top stories of the last week…

December 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

After arriving back into a very cold and snowy Gatwick airport in the small hours of this morning, I have spent today catching up on the week’s latest through slightly bleary eyes.. I promise not to do round ups too often, but here’s a list of what I missed so you don’t have to!

An Iranian woman was hanged in Tehran for stabbing the wife of a famous footballer – she herself was a “temporary wife” of his at the time. Amnesty International protested on the grounds that she is not believed to have had a fair trial, and may have been forced into a confession.

A really interesting piece here about female sexworkers in Kenya being given microloans to help them out of prostitution and poverty .

A report from WOMANKIND Worldwide and the Institute of Education concludes that schools are still failing women with one in three reporting sexual bullying on a daily basis.

The Guardian reported that Mexico drug cartels are increasingly targetting women :

And a Pakistani cleric reportedly offers a bounty reward fee of $6,000 to anyone who kills a Christian mother convicted of blasphemy against Islam.

…After that list of rather gloomy news, a more lighthearted piece to cheer you up (because everyone needs a little light relief on a Monday!) Actor George Clooney visited Sudan to help raise awareness of the war-torn country’s needs, and in a local tradition is spat on by a village elder for good luck. “I’ve had people spit at me before – but it wasn’t a blessing”, Clooney said.

“Poverty wears a woman’s face” as governments fail them

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

An woman attacked in the DRC by rebels Pic from World in Witness at

Violence against women is the single biggest threat to peace, according to a report released today by Women for Women International.

The country director for Nigeria, Ngozi Eze, will launch the report called Gender, Conflict and MDGs officially tonight at Amnesty International’s headquarters.

 MDGs (or Millennium Development Goals) are being missed by a very long way, according to the report, which makes grim reading.

 Research with organisations based in conflict zones with a particular focus on Nigeria, has concluded that:

  • Development and Security agendas are not linked
  • Violence against women is the single greatest impediment to development and peace
  • Economic empowerment is key to women’s recovery from conflict
  • Women continue to be left out of formal peace processes
  • Work on security, conflict prevention and peace-building needs to be informed by local realities and women’s needs.

 Women for Women, which helps women in areas of conflict worldwide to rebuild their lives, concluded that the main obstacle to women’s economic empowerment is the lack of security – both inside and outside the home. Other obstacles are the lack of opportunities to market goods, limited movement outside the home due to cultural attitudes and a lack of social protection when work is not possible.

 To me, the key fact to take away from the report is that women’s participation in the 16 peace processes since 2000 has really been minimal. Particularly, five cases are noted – Somalia (2002), Cote D’Ivoire (2003), Nepal (2006), the Philippines (2007) and the Central African Republic (2008) – where no women participated as signatories, mediators, witnesses or negotiators.  The report sums up: “In spite of their contributions to community reconciliation and peace, women are chronically under-represented in security, justice and public sectors, which all play a key role in peace-building.”

 There is a good list of recommendations to help tackle these problems, and some are being put into practice or helped on their way by this inspirational organisation. But worryingly, most involve money or investment of some kind. This might be what’s needed, but it is also something that is not forthcoming in many warzones.

 Today is the International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I wish it was as easy as a one day event. The sobering challenges in this report have not seen progress in the first ten years of the Millennium Goals aiming to eliminate poverty, but let’s hope this important piece of work gets the attention it deserves and helps to bring about some changes.

“Sadly, in times of war a woman’s burdens only get heavier, her vulnerabilities more pronounced. She remains locked in poverty, often losing the protection of home and husband, coping with fear and suffering devastating rights violations and violence, including torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution and mutilation. Despite these grim realities, she brings enormous energy, leadership and resilience to protecting families and rebuilding fractured communities. “
–          Kate Nustedt, Executive Director, Women for Women

Another domestic maid dies in the Middle East

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just a quick follow up to my post earlier in the week on the abuse of domestic maids in the Middle East. Sad news today that an Indonesian maid has reportedly been killed in Saudi Arabia – at the hands of a female employer, reports suggest.

Indonesia is understandably demanding an inquiry – and good luck to them. With another Indonesian maid also in hospital after allegedly suffering from torture in hospital, the country has sent a team to investigate.  I hope they manage to make enough noise to get this issue towards the top of the agenda. The more international pressure can be brought to this issue, the more likely Saudi Arabia will be forced to take action.

Afghan women’s football team is a sign of progress

November 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nice optimistic piece from the BBC here on the Afghanistan’s national women’s football team  – don’t forget that in the very recent past women were kept away from education and public life, and frequently kept indoors. The existance of this video, and the team in Afghanistan, is a triumph.

The health of a woman’s national sport side can be a good indication of the state of women’s rights within the country. Football in Iran has a rocky history, for example, with various political leaders deciding that women should not even be allowed to watch men playing the sport. The Iranian youth women’s team was also at the centre of a controversy about how to compete in international competitions whilst still following Iran’s restrictive dress code for women (Interestingly, women’s football in Iran was thriving prior to the Islamic revolution there in 1979). In Saudi Arabia, the decision to allow women to drive almost prompted riots from hardline conservatives in the country. And, in keeping with that – women are allowed to take part in football games. 

As long as the referee, linesmen, all the players and all the spectators are female.

Gulf states still fail to protect Sri Lankan maids

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Human Rights Watch is highlighting today the plight facing women working in the Middle East after Sri Lankan maids were taken to hospital reporting abuse at the hands of their employers.

This is an area ripe for abuse. More than 1.7m Sri Lankans work abroad – the vast majority being women – because they can earn more pay than they would do at home, particularly given the civil wars which have plagued the country over the last twenty years.

But this is an area which is constantly neglected, to the extent where they are referred to as “daily occurances” in the UAE. These women are reporting being forced to “swallow nails” when asking to be paid (after six months of work), and for having nails driven into their foreheads, arms and legs, along with passports being seized and long working days without breaks. The stories are chillingly familiar. In 2007, Human Rights Watch published a report calling for Gulf states to take action because of hideous assaults on domestic Sri Lankan staff.

How many times does an issue have to be raised before action will be taken? In 2007 HRW called for the UAE to extend labour laws to include domestic workers, to re-think immigration laws so that workers are not tied to their employers, and to regulate the industry and working conditions . Three years ago Gulf states responded angrily that they had made a lot of progress in this area – today’s news suggests there is still a long way to go.

Remembrance day needs more work to truely remember

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment


I didn’t buy a poppy this year. Usually I buy one mainly for my grandad – he fought in World War Two and lost several members of friends and family. He is no longer with us, but I buy one in memory of him.

This year, I made a donation instead to a different charity – to the charity War Child, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. I don’t have anything against the Poppy Charity. But I resent the glorification of war – and I don’t think we think enough here in the UK whether we are remembering the right things. I don’t want to forget the freedom that was fought for. And I think what we really need to remember today are countries that don’t have that same freedom.

On this remembrance Sunday, I’d urge you all to remember the people nobody remembers, who don’t have memorials, and don’t get pages in the press. The thousands of women who have been raped in the civil war in the Congo  – the estimated 108,000 civilians killed since the beginning of violence in Iraq. More than 600 civilians killed in civil war in Liberia this year alone.

War Child says it “looks forward to a world where the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war.” The charity works in DRC, Uganda, Iraq and Afghanistan, with children who have been raped, abused, abandoned, orphaned, forced to become child soldiers, prostitues, beggers. I don’t have any problem with Remembrance Day. But please, let’s widen the remit to remember everyone who has suffered and sacrificed in wars worldwide – not just in the Western world.

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