Half the World — setting the scene

Half of the world is made up of women.  Yet when we teach history, women are often left out of the picture.  To address this imbalance, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, two Pulitzer Prize winning authors (they are also husband and wife) published a best-selling book in 2009 called Half the Sky.  The title is a reference to a Chinese proverb that says “Women Hold Up Half The Sky.”  The subtitle of the book is “Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide.”

On page 21 of the book, there’s a compelling paragraph — one that resonates with the middle school I plan to open in 2013 (new readers to this blog, please click for details about the school).

Here’s the paragraph from Half the Sky:

Two-point-seven billion people — more than 40 percent of the world — live on less than two dollars a day.  Wow.  That sounds high, so let’s see if we can corroborate that statistic — how many people in the world in 2011 live on less than $2 per day?

This isn’t a definitive source, but apparently, as of September 2010, one source says there are more than three billion people living on less than $2.50 per day:

And since the world’s population is approaching seven billion,

that means that roughly 3/7 of the world — more than 40% — live on less than $2.50 per day.

Now that’s a difficult concept to grasp — more than 40% of the world lives on less than $700 a year.  What are these peoples’ lives like?  How can we empathize with their condition?  There’s a famous saying (one I just learned is attributed to Joseph Stalin) that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

So let’s take that troubling statistic of three billion or so people, and bring one person’s story to life.  In this case, it’s not a story about a single death, but about a single life — a woman’s life in Pakistan.  This is a brave woman with whom we can empathize and hers is a life that has made a difference.

On page 70 of Half the Sky, we meet Mukhtar Mai.  If you are a typical sixth grader, you probably have not heard of her before — but in 2005 she was Glamour Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” and she now has her own Wikipedia page.

As regular blog readers know, when I see a place such as Meerwala, Pakistan, it’s hard for me to empathize, because I have never been to Pakistan.  But I can start to empathize by looking up Meerwala on Google Earth.  Looking up such a place both brings Mukhtar Mai’s story to life and helps expand my global horizons.  Plus it’s easy to do.  Simply click on Meerwala, and you get this:

So let’s get some context using Google Earth.  I’m not going to presume that sixth graders know where Pakistan is located (I would bet that most 9th graders don’t know), so I’d start with this view:

And then I’d add a place mark for Meerwala, showing that it’s in the south of the Punjab region of Pakistan:

Okay, so now we have a sense of where Meerwala is located… or do we?

(quick quiz: what are the nations represented by the numbers 1-6?)

Answer: 1=Iraq; 2=Iran; 3=Afghanistan; 4=Pakistan; 5=India; 6=China.

Okay, now that we have slowed down enough to really have a sense of where Meerwala is located, let’s learn more about what happened there.  Astute readers already learned (from the Wikipedia blurb above where we got the GPS coordinates) that Mukhtar Mai was gang raped in 2002 — so this will not be a pleasant story.  But it is a powerful one.

Some people would question whether it’s appropriate to teach sixth graders about a woman who had been gang raped.  The premise of the school I plan to open is that young people are capable of understanding, handling, and accomplishing far more than we typically give them credit for.  It’s a disservice NOT to teach them about the world in which they live — both the inspirational and the horrible.  This story contains some of each.

I’m not sure I would tell this story to a third or fourth grader — but a mature 11-year old should be ready for this story.  So here goes…

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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