ISOBEL COLEMAN is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East will be published by Random House this spring.
When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Africa in August 2009, she went out of her way to meet with women's groups -- female farmers in Kenya, rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, microfinance entrepreneurs across the continent. In South Africa, she spent twice as long visiting a women's housing project near Cape Town as she did meeting with the country's president, Jacob Zuma. Some quietly sniped that Clinton was devaluing her office by meeting with so many grass-roots female activists; others applauded the fact that a U.S. secretary of state had made women's rights a critical foreign policy issue. Clinton defended her agenda, noting that such attention serves to "change the priorities" of governments.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's new book, Half the Sky, should convince any reader of why those priorities do, in fact, need to change. Kristof and WuDunn argue that "the brutality inflicted routinely on women and girls in much of the world" is "one of the paramount human rights problems of this century." Their statistics are numbing: every year, at least two million girls worldwide "disappear" due to gender discrimination. Given little societal value, girls are not vaccinated, not treated when they are sick, not educated, and often not even fed. Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by male violence than by war, cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined. More women have been killed by neglect and violence in the last 50 years than men have by all the wars of the twentieth century. The cost to the world is staggering -- not only in human terms but also in economic terms: lost IQ, lost GDP, cyclical poverty.
But Kristof and WuDunn do not simply fall into moral outrage. Instead, they acknowledge the difficulty of eliminating the deeply rooted social practices underlying gender discrimination, while also presenting a series of colorful vignettes that demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit. Many of the characters
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