Book Review: “Half the Sky”

PrintA few weeks ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend the 2013 Justice Conference, held in Philadelphia, PA.  I’ve been wanting to attend this event for several years, and was incredibly grateful for the scholarship that helped me get there.  The Lord knew it was what I needed at that time- an awakening, and an inspiration.

Having attended a Christian university filled with young, enthusiastic activists and having worked in the social justice/nonprofit field for some time now, I can see in retrospect a numbness that crept into my heart and stole my fire- one that couldn’t link statistics to individuals, one that had heard all of the horror stories, one that silently acknowledged that there would always be problems, and there was only so much we could do.  It was a numbness that was comfortable knowing the “sound bite” of an issue, feeling informed by a radio broadcast, but not knowing the depths of an issue or the nuances of what it would take to properly address them.  The Justice Conference, however, rekindled the call in my heart to the work of justice and the desire I once had to be informed and to be a voice for those who may not have a voice- and to speak well on their behalf, in a way that would truly benefit them, not just inject western culture into their lives in a way that would be harmful.

One of the many speakers to grace the stage was the captivating Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winner and wife of NY Times’ Nick Kristof.  As with each speaker, she spoke of a specific injustice taking place in the world today- her speech was focused on injustices towards women, as she chronicles in her and her husband’s recent book, Half the Sky. As she eloquently engaged the audience in her stories of horror and hope from around the world, I knew that my next step would be to read her book- so I did!

The journey that reading Half the Sky has taken me on in the past week has been one that I will never forget- I don’t think I will ever look at the world the same way.  To think about the 100 million women who are missing from today’s population because of forced/coerced abortion, infanticide, genocide, spousal abuse, malnutrition based on gender preference, and honor killings breaks my heart.  Stories of young girls being tricked into sex slavery and trafficked far away from their home haunt me each time I see a small child. To read the studies that detail the power that putting funding into girl’s education in Asia could have, or even the difference that something as menial as iodizing salt could make, is infuriating and confusing.  To read about the millions women who are sentenced to be ostracized as pariahs because of fistulas that form during unattended births makes me almost as sad as thinking of the one woman- every MINUTE- that dies in childbirth, almost always from an entirely preventable, common complication.  The young girls forced into genital mutilation.  The women who must ask their alcoholic husbands for permission to leave their homes. There is so much more- and so much work to be done.

I really appreciated the honesty that the book brings to the table, especially in chronicling US foreign aid.  While certain efforts are celebrated, others are questioned, all when appropriate.  Stories of aid efforts failed are told alongside of brilliant plans to support cultures, giving the reader a deeper, more holistic understanding of the issue of injustice towards women. The most effective part, however, is that WuDunn and Kristof tell real stories of real women in the book- stories that you will remember and that will come alongside you in your journey to understand this issue.

If you read one book this year, make it this one.  Just as racial injustice didn’t see any measurable improvement until the public banded together and put pressure on governments and cultural norms, so will be the fight against gender injustice.  This fight will not be won by  quoting soundbites, but by understanding the issues on an intimate level and being able to articulate the problems and possible solutions in the most informed way possible.  Don’t settle for knowing the surface of the horror that millions of women around the world face.  Know their names, let them make a difference in your heart, and join the fight.

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There is also a “Half the Sky” documentary series available on PBS and Netflix.  I haven’t seen it yet but I am thinking about holding a screening- let me know if you would be interested!

Zeroes: Big Box Retail Stores

For my second installment of “Heroes and Zeroes”, I wanted to tackle a bigger issue- a subject that really effects how we purchase- and that is “big box” retail stores. There’s a good chance you went to one today, or at least this week. You might do all of your regular shopping at one, maybe even for groceries! Well, my friends, that is a lot of kingdom money being spent, and we’ve got to make sure that we are spending it wisely. This post might turn your shopping life upside down- I hope it does. The Zero of the retail store industry undoubtedly goes to: Walmart.

Despite all of the readily available information on Walmart’s downfalls, it shocks me how many people (especially believers) still patronize them for convenience’s sake or simply out of habit. The following is a non-exhaustive list of reasons to never set foot in a Walmart again:

-Forced overtime or forced open availability has led to worker strikes in several parts of the country. There has also been documentation of child labor laws being broken.
Lunch and rest breaks are frequently revoked.

-Full time wages that fall below the poverty line are normal for a career Walmart employee. Average yearly salary for a full time employee has been, at times, almost $1000 under the poverty line. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, is quoted as saying “I pay low wages. I can take advantage of that. We’re going to be successful, but the basis is a very low-wage, low-benefit model of employment.”

-Gender discrimination, both in the hiring process and within the workplace, had been proven in several lawsuits, including Duke vs. Walmart Inc.

-Several cases of illegal or undocumented workers have come up within Walmart, who has denied knowledge but then been proven as lying by tapped phone conversations.

-Strict anti-union rules make it exceedingly difficult for Walmart employees to stand up for themselves or band together against injustices within their workplace.

-Very poor or nonexistent healthcare coverage is standard for Walmart employees. Only about 54% of employees are insured, while comparable box stores insure as many as 98% of their employees. It is argued that Walmart employees don’t get paid enough to even be able to afford their health insurance.

– Salary caps are often enforced on veteran employees, and salaries are even cut at times based on sales within the store, often cutting what small benefits are offered in the process.

-The presence of a Walmart can kill local businesses, some of which were previously in operation for years. The ability to get everything in one place for a very cheap price is very convenient, but comes at the cost of smaller businesses seeing dramatic loss in customer frequency and often having to close shop for lack of profit. This inevitably results in job loss in the community, no matter how many (low paying) jobs Walmart created within its walls.

-Walmart’s continuous quest for low prices forces manufacturers to comply with their wishes, often creating poor working situations within those companies as well. there are reports of major companies, such as Kraft Foods, having to close down factories in order to cut costs to keep their priced as low as Walmart demanded, resulting in major job loss for Kraft employees.

-Sourcing ethics. Much of what is sold in Walmart is manufactured
overseas in subpar working conditions, often at the expense of child labor and good quality. Reports of sweat shop and prison labor are widely publicized, and the store has even sold jewelry lines contaminated with dangerous chemicals in the past. In addition, such overseas shipping creates pollution that could easily be avoided if local sourced were in use.

If you would like to see a succinct documentary on the toll Walmart takes on local communities, pull up your Netflix and find The High Cost of Low Price. It’s worth the watch, especially if you regularly (or ever) patronize Walmart.

As a believer, I feel that I cannot spend a dollar of money meant to built the Kingdom in a place that is committing such atrocities as those listed above. It certainly is less convenient to have to make a few stops rather than one, but I have no regrets whatsoever!

Stop by tomorrow for our Hero alternative for retail stores!