Book review: ‘Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe,’ by Ritu Sharma
Special to the Daily
In this world, there are doers and there are talkers, and more often than not, it is the ones who talk the most and the loudest who hold the power, and more often than not, the powerful are men. This is a cynical view, perhaps, but idealism in the political world is usually best suited for a Hollywood interpretation, for the real theatrical antics of Washington slant much more toward a sardonic world-weariness.
When author Ritu Sharma began her job as a young D.C. intern, she, too, suffered from a starry-eyed confidence, certain she could help foster change from the top down. On that first day, working for Friends for the Earth, where her lowly task was to deliver a letter to all members of Congress, her naiveté quickly evaporated to be replaced by a slow-burning and dogged determination.
It was there, in the underbelly of the halls of Congress, far removed from the well-paid public faces, that she found her calling — advocating for women’s health and well being around the world. Sharma’s recent book, “Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe” is her story of that journey.
At its heart, the book is a call to arms, a respectful plea to the cynical and disillusioned public that committed citizens of the world can foster an end to world poverty. The key to creating meaningful programs that alleviate suffering in the most vulnerable corners of the world, Sharma says, is by focusing on the needs of women and girls. “Development aid projects that overlook women miss their best opportunity to end the cycle of poverty.”
As Sharma’s career advanced, and she delved more deeply into the problems women face, she was driven by the realization that there is the world over — including in the United States — an unbalanced attention given to women’s reproductive abilities over their experiences and basic rights as human beings.
The book opens on the unforgettable day in 2004 when an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered a devastating tsunami. Sri Lanka, an island along the Ring of Fire, was unprepared that day, and thousands of lives changed — and ended — in an instant. Names and stories emerge in Sharma’s telling, and the statistics we heard on our televisions become real people with dreams and goals.
More women than men died that terrible day, as so many more of them were home with their children in the mud and kindling huts that lined the shores. Many of the women who survived were raped and brutalized by men in the aftermath, a not uncommon occurrence for the world’s women after natural disasters and the destructive acts of war. In the International Displaced Persons camps that spring up after such cataclysmic events, the people who make the decisions are inevitably men, while most of the camp inhabitants are women, according to data Sharma presents.
In these settings, rape and trafficking are rampant, and the male camp leaders can hold power over the women by controlling their access to basic feminine needs, such as sanitary pads and undergarments. Sex becomes a tool that the men use to bargain. Sharma goes on to say that when international aid does come, it is primarily focused on helping the men go off to find work, which leaves the women and children they leave behind even more vulnerable than before.
These are just some of the many examples of women’s issues and rights being undermined by good intentions or a basic ignorance of how people in other cultures live. Women who stagnate in poverty are best served, Sharma insists, when they have some control over their own destinies. “Poverty is not about having no money; it’s about having no power to change your own circumstance.”
In order to understand what impoverished people truly need, one must get down into their world and experience it firsthand. It is also vital to not simply descend into a country with a handful of answers. Tools need to be provided so those answers can be reached from within. Often, the cycle of poverty continues because people don’t know that they have a right to demand basic survival services from their governments. This applies even more to the female populations within a country, especially when women are denied an education.
In spite of what Sharma has observed over her years as the president of Women Thrive Worldwide, which is committed to advancing the causes of women around the world to better pull their communities out of poverty, she has always been heartened by what she finds in each community in which she works, whether it be Sri Lanka, Nicaragua or Burkina Faso. No matter the hardships that women have faced, they are always ready to join with other women to elevate one another.
Women who feel empowered have a lot of energy and an innate ability to pull their families out of poverty. Focusing aid on women does not leave behind the men in their lives; entire communities thrive when women are supported and educated.
Nearly as vital as education for women is land ownership, independent from the men in their lives. This removes the pressure on girls to marry young, which undermines their chances to receive an education and to contribute to the improvement of their own lives.
As Sharma pulls examples from around the world of lives and communities changed as women are empowered, she also paints a picture of the struggles of her organization here at home to promote an international protocol for the rights and the treatment of woman and girls around the world. She details the fight to advance a bill through Congress that would aim to identify and collectively pressure the world’s worst offenders of women’s rights.
The failed attempt to pass the International Violence Against Women Act raises the unspeakable notion that the world is still largely a patriarchal place and protecting women to an international minimum standard is not a priority for some individuals or governing bodies. Sharma uses her soapbox to inspire, advocating for her readers to step up and write to their representatives, saying that advocating collectively really can make a difference.
“Teach a Woman to Fish” is, in turns, infuriating in the injustices it lays bare and heartening in the sense of the hope it stimulates and the actions it inspires. Sharma demands from her readers a desire to educate themselves on the plights of women around the world, and she lays out simple strategies for each person to take that knowledge and, through individual and collective advocacy, transform it into substantive contributions for those most in need.