WMC President Carol Jenkins on Kristof/WuDunn Book
September 9, 2009
Women’s Media Center President Carol Jenkins joins a host of other notable commentators on Kristof & WuDunn's new book, “Half The Sky,” running this week on RH Reality Check, a UN-funded, award-winning, progressive, online publication covering global reproductive and sexual health news. The series is called “Women Need Rights, Not Rescue.” Other contributing authors include Edwin Okong’o of New America Media, Yifat Susskind and Diana Duarte of MADRE, Amanda Marcotte of RH Reality Check and Pandragon, Ariel Doughtery of the Media Equity Collaborative and more. Below is Carol's piece, reprinted.
Half the Sky—Here in America, Too
I find the conversation surrounding the publication of Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, illuminating. The NYTimes’ devotion of an entire issue of its magazine to the book’s publication provoked responses of all kinds, including a certain consternation that it took a man’s work on the issue to convert the Times folks into believers. Those of us advocating for women in media find this to be generally true: even if the subject is women, media executives would rather hear about it from a man.
That said, I am now reading the full book, and find it to be an extremely valuable instrument to help us think through girls, women, poverty, and sexual exploitation—and how we can be truly useful going forward. Sheryl and Nick have found, in the stories of individual girls and women, a way for us to understand the deprivation of millions. They spell out the work of organizations small and large to get us thinking about what we might do. Over the weekend on his blog, Nick took up again the issue of menstruation and its impact on school attendance of girls in developing countries. It is something so elemental that we might not even think of it as a true barrier to education, to eventual economic stability.
Mostly through my work as a board member of AMREF (The African Medical Research Foundation ) I see first hand the gaping needs in developing countries. We are the largest African Health organization on the continent—we train 10,000 community health workers a year—and despite our successes, fistula, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS are still with us.
I have interviewed women and girls in Africa: brutally raped women in post-war Liberia-- and school girls who escaped The Lord’s Liberation Army in northern Uganda, haunted by the people they’d killed, to simply stay alive. In Madagascar it is the sexual exploitation of small children that concerns me. The problem of foreigners flying in to have sex with impoverished children six and younger is so prevalent, that the airlines hand out flyers warning that “Children are not the souvenirs of tourists!”
But as committed as I am to working in the developing world, I have a couple of thoughts about hearts breaking right here at home. We have our own invisibles: they are mostly women of color, particularly black women with staggering infant mortality and maternal mortality rates, lack of insurance, heightened death from breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Illness and early death-- and permanent residence in the bottom rung of our so-called economic ladder-- make for an endangered group right here in our midst.
It is a group we need to keep in mind, because you won’t see us very much in the media—home bred women of color don’t have the exotic appeal of grand international rescue missions. But there are many of us who believe that black women in America are now in full blown crisis, and require a concerted effort of activists, philanthropists, big thinkers. Black women’s voices are largely missing from our debate about health care, even as the disparities in their care are the starkest.
And so we come to the crucial piece in all of this: media. Many take this essential brick of our democracy for granted—or see it primarily as a dispassionate information tool for the privileged. Around the world, and right here at home, we need to think of media as essential as a blood transfusion: life giving and life saving. It’s why we work so hard at The Women’s Media Center to make sure women get to tell the stories.
Last January, in Monrovia, Liberia, I visited the fistula repair unit at John F. Kennedy Hospital. Here I met very young women who through rape or unattended childbirth had been essentially torn apart, then ostracized by their families. These patients cried and sang laments of abandonment—but the surgery, and rehabilitation afterwards, would restore them. Almost every woman on this brink of recovery had heard about the surgery on the UN radio station, in her own dialect. Media as transfusion.
As we consider the rich global view Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn have given us—let’s see what examples are in their work to restore the lives of the women of color here in our own country.
Carol Jenkins is the president of The Women’s Media Center and board member of AMREF/USA.