Women, Sex-Trafficking, Development Work, and the Sciences: Four perspective-altering titles for our “modern” culture

The past few books I’ve read have completely served to alter my perspective and open my eyes to a lot of the harsh realities of life in the 21st century. The following titles shed light on the fact that our new century is not as forward-thinking as we presume it to be. Half the world’s population, namely women, are still subjugated in various ways in both developed and developing nations. The children of the next generation suffer as a result. The first title in my list lays out the broadest themes, and the subsequent titles zoom in on more particular examples of lack of progress in our “modern culture.”

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1. Half the Sky

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is the book that caused me to become so vocal regarding advocacy for women’s rights. While reading about the numerous women’s stories in Half the Sky, I experienced an overwhelming range of emotions; other women and men who have read this incredible global exposé on the mistreatment of half the planet’s population report having gone through a similar spectrum of emotions– disbelief, followed by shock, followed by sickness to one’s stomach, followed by rage, followed by sheer joy when reading accounts of women and their children who are finally able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them. This book is not easy on the stomach, as it is very graphic, and needfully so. The treatment of women worldwide in these so-called “modern times” has degraded to the point where the authors’ graphic descriptions are all that’s left to spur us towards  action. The book touches on every serious subject such as maternal health, female genital mutilation (FGM), fistulas and lack of proper care for women’s medical needs worldwide, rape as a tool of war, sex trafficking, women as property, women suffering as a result of “culture” and other long-held traditions, etc. Reading Half the Sky is truly a prerequisite for cultural literacy. I followed up my reading of the book with the two part PBS documentary of the same name, and it was no less disturbing and eye-opening:

(On a tangential note, make sure to also check out Kristof’s nail-biting documentary “Reporter,” in which he goes deep into the Congo to conduct in-person interviews with rebel warlords. He’s been a long-time award-winning journalist for the New York Times.)

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2. Road of Lost Innocence

Somaly Mam is one of the women profiled in Kristof and WuDunn’s book; Road of Lost Innocence is her personal account of being tricked and kidnapped as a young girl, sold into sexual slavery in her native Cambodia. While reading her memoir, the treatment of women as property and debased sexual objects makes it hard to believe that her story took place only a few decades ago and that sadly, this sort of treatment of women still takes place today in the world’s red light districts. Now Mam is a world leader in rehabilitating women recently freed from sexual slavery– the Somaly Mam Foundation works with AFESIP to rehabilitate women and children coming out of sexual slavery and exploitation. Despite everything Mam has seen, her message in this quote from her book is one of hope: “I strongly believe that love is the answer and that it can mend even the deepest unseen wounds. Love can heal, love can console, love can strengthen, and yes, love can make change.” If you are in the New York City area in October and have the necessary funds, I  highly recommend that you support Mam’s mission by attending the annual benefit dinner for the Somaly Mam Foundation, hosted by Katie Couric. It would be a dream of mine to attend this benefit dinner one day.

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3. The Blue Sweater

Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen Fund, is the embodiment of the idea behind global citizenship. She’s one of my favorite role models on how to be a savvy citizen– her memoir provides a candid account of the difficulties in choosing a life in development work. Among many other invaluable lessons, Novogratz constantly reminds the reader of the importance of being a good listener while trying to help out in other countries. She teaches the reader that what we (for example, people in already developed countries) think other countries need may not be exactly what they want for themselves. Rather than prescribing remedies for the problems we identify in other developing nations, she says that it’s more important to get the know the people in specific communities and find out directly from them what they want. This process requires a lot of patience, as it tends to take time to establish a rapport with a group of people, gain trust, and understand the varied cultural nuances involved when people either ask or don’t ask for what they need or want. Overall, Novogratz brilliantly conveys the concept of a global village. The entire account functions as a snowball effect– when she was young, she donated her blue sweater, and years leader she met a child wearing exactly her blue sweater in Africa. At that moment, she realized that we are all responsible for each other– that the world is truly a small place, and that our experiences and circumstances are all interconnected, even if they seem to be vastly different. On a personal note, I felt I was able to relate to Novogratz, as she comes from the Washington, DC, greater metropolitan area, and eventually ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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4. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering

At Menlo School I am involved with the M-BEST program, which is a program at our school that was set up in order to address the utter dearth of women in STEM careers. The United States National Academy of Sciences published this eye-opening book that offers irrefutable proof that the lack of women in scientific and mathematical careers has absolutely nothing to do with subject matter and aptitude, but rather with the culture and atmosphere that pervade universities and businesses at the highest levels– factors that preclude women from advancing in those various fields. Although this book recommendation seems hyper-specific in this list dealing with broader themes in modern society, the collection of data therein completely convinced me that the United States’ continued gradual decline in world-wide rankings in scientific capacities of developed nations can be accounted for directly due to the underutilized pool of talented women. I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in math and science– the data presented in the tables and charts are overwhelming.

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