Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky has inspired today’s panel to help improve literacy levels for girls and women in developing countries.
Children’s and teen author, Tristan Bancks, Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian poet and writer, and Christine Mansfield, well known chef and author of Tasting India joined British Pakistani novelist Qaisra Shahraz for this stimulating discussion , chaired by Susan Wyndham.
These people have congregated to advocate Room to Read, a group that endeavours to increase literacy in developing countries, particularly for women. This is implemented by local teams that go into rural communities and learn how best to implement the literacy goals.
Mansfield was passionate in her belief that the Room to Read program was essential, to help counter the blatant discrimination of women around the world. She then read an excerpt from the book Half the Sky. It detailed the extremes taken by African women to stem the endemic rape occurring there.
The conversation was awash with descriptions of horrific scenes of vile subjugation of women in countries throughout the developing world. There were many stories of traumatised women who received no subsequent help from the rigid patriarchal societies around them.
There were also tales of success stories. The Pink Saris group in India have successfully appealed on behalf of abused women, and empowered themselves within their society. Beneba Clarke told us that the costs of helping the situation was quite low.
The most interesting part of the conversation came at the end when it was time for questions from the audience. A member of the largely female audience firstly asked, “Have you noticed a difference from your efforts?”
The answer: at an individual level there is massive change. Shahrah admitted it was rewarding to teach a woman to read.
“Teaching one woman to write her name for the first time is equivalent to another woman’s PhD,” she said. But the problem is so big that it requires cultural change to extinguish completely.
But which culture needs to change? Plane flight – a luxury generally reserved for those not in the developing world – is one of the largest contributors to human-linked climate change. Gender inequality would be moot if human caused environmental damage means an end to their cultural way of life altogether.
The next audience question was to ask the panel if they were aware that one of the women whose story appears in Half the Sky, Somaly Mam, has recently been at the centre of allegations that her story is false.
Beneba Clarke replied that they were aware of the incident but the falsity of one individual does not lessen the suffering of women that were in these positions. It does call into question, however, the enormity of the problem. Why was there a need to provide a false witness if there were many suffering women?
Women suffrage worldwide is a serious problem that must be addressed. But is the answer to a global problem encouraging people to fly all over the world visiting developing countries? Not to mention that infiltrating these societies and encouraging the ‘developed’ world’s viewpoints is scarily reminiscent of the colonial past.
No one doubts the sincerity with which we all want to see an end to inequality on our earth. And the level of commitment that some individuals are capable of is quite frankly awe-inspiring. But perhaps this is a situation where the developed world should take a good long look at their own destructive ways, and maybe fix those, before spending so many resources on only a part of these massive global quandaries.
RP Stoval is studying creative writing at Southern Cross University.