Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Outrage and Strategy in Improving Women's Lives Around the World

This slideshow about Afghani child brides is shocking to me...not because I learned any significant new facts about the situation of young women in Afghanistan but because these portraits convey its horrors much more intimately than the recitation of statistics or a verbal narrative can. 

There is a tendency, when so shocked, to believe that a mere expression of outrage will somehow stand a chance of beginning to improve the circumstances of women such as these.  It cannot. 

Directing outrage against members of a distant and unfamiliar culture, if it has any impact at all, runs the risk of alienating the targets and hardening their attitudes against us.  This is because outrage can effect change only among people who view themselves as fellow members of some community of shared values; there must be some sort of "us" within which A's outrage poses a threat to B's status , B's wellbeing or B's ability to sleep at night).

I don't mean to argue that we should not work for change in places like Afghanistan.  We do, however, have to find ways of being smart about it.  We will need to bring humility, research, subtlety, persistence and consistency to the task.  None of these traits, unfortunately, are characteristic of our principal means of communicating about public issues.  Tweets, blogs, political addresses, and television punditry, for example, do not tend to reinforce any of the qualities I've mentioned.  It isn't that, given sufficient care and coordination, they couldn't.  It is only that in our American rush for the one quick fix they are rarely used that way. 

I am encouraged, therefore, that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, have brought out their new book Half The Sky.  I have not read the book but I intend to.  Examining the table of contents, reading the first chapter, and listening to interviews and reading reviews I conclude that Kristof and WuDunn present carefully researched arguments and reasonable suggestions for action. 

They have their own website to explore, complete with a long list of resources.  They are also partnering with MercyCorps' One Table campaign (which addresses issues of world hunger by investing in the women of the world) to deliver special material to reading clubs which discuss the book.

A world-wide, coordinated approach to addressing women's rights, women's education, women's economic status, and the exploitation of women seems to me to be a very smart way to proceed, well worth the effort and the patience it will take to make it work.

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