The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
- St. Augustine.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some interesting things I've read lately

One of the great and less scary things about not going to school is the opportunity I have to read again. I'm an avid reader - I devour everything, from contemporary fiction to nonfiction to essays to newspapers and so on - but it's near impossible to read while in school. I often found myself procrastinating on writing papers at USC by finishing M.F.K Fisher's The Gastronomical Me. Or staying up til 3 AM not studying for a test, but riveted by The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Now that I'm not in school, those guilty days are gone! 

Recently, I read an eye and heart opening book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn called Half the Sky. It focuses on heartbreaking exploitation of the world's greatest untapped and unappreciated resource: women. The journalistic couple relay anecdotes from countries that they have visited and reported about to illustrate some hard statistics: more girls have been killed in the last 50 years, simply because they are girls, than men were killed in all of the wars in the twentieth century. Women own 1% of the world's wealth, receive 10% of global income and occupy 14% of leadership positions in the private and public sector. They produce half of the world's food but own 1% of its land. The journalistic couple points out that the barriers for women are multiple and hard to overcome because they are so insiduous: most are cultural and simply traditions passed down every generation. Repression and disempowerment of women is a cycle that many individuals and groups do not think they can or even should break. 

But the book shows some statistics and tells many stories to evidence that this is not true. When governments support women's opportunity to work, the GDP rises and the economy stabilizes. When women control the finances of the household, they spend more money on education, food, and healthcare. Children are healthier, and therefore, societies are healthier. A recent NYTimes blog post about the extremely effective cash-handout program reports that it works because "...The payments always go to women, as they are most likely to spend the money on their families... This is likely the most important government antipoverty program the world has ever seen... A family living in extreme poverty doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit... In Mexico, malnutrition and anemia have dropped, as have incidences of childhood and adult illnesses. Maternal and infant deaths have been reduced. Contraceptive use in rural areas has risen and teen pregnancy has declined. But the most dramatic results are visible in education. Children in Oportunidades repeat fewer grades and stay in school longer. Child labor has dropped. In rural areas, the percentage of children entering middle school has risen by 42%. High school inscription in rural areas has risen by a whopping 85%. The strongest effects on education are found in families where the mothers have the lowest schooling levels" (Rosenburg). 

I also read a fascinating book called Sex, Time, and Power about the evolution of human sexuality, patriarchal society and misogyny. It acts as an anthropological analysis of contemporary gender relations and certainly helped me to understand how we got to where we are today - a male-dominated society that represses, violates and exploits women. Of course, the congruence of evolution and culture is a powerful force, but not something that we cannot change. Humans of different colored skin evolved because of natural selection, and culture eventually dictated that some differently colored people were inferior but culture has changed. Natural selection selected for the different physical, psychological and sexual characteristics that women have and cultures around the world today consider women to be inferior, but culture can change again. It has, throughout the years, and it will again.

Some questions to consider: Is women's empowerment a seemingly obvious solution to ending extreme inequality and poverty? How can government and grassroots initiatives win cultural acceptance? When is right to invest in women and when is it right to give them cash payments? How can we end voluntary self-prostitution and promote instead professional self-advancement? How culturally accepted is it for women not to get a "real job"? How long will it take for women to be accepted in the workplace, let alone praised? (Research shows that subordinates are more dissatisfied with a female superior's performance even when she produced more results and was more objectively effective than her male peers) How can we connect the deepening female social advancement in the First World to the basic need for dignity and freedom of females in the Third World?