Tag Archives: health

Hobbit-Based Resolutions for 2016

Each year, I read dozens of books.  The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life by Noble Smith was the final book I read in 2015.  As it happens, Hobbit wisdom provides us with advice which makes for great resolutions for 2016 and every year beyond.

The Wisdom of the Shire

Smith first read Tolkien as a child and adored the books so intensely that he re-read them all many, many times.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he took life advice from the Hobbits who seemed generally happy and content.  While living a Hobbit lifestyle may seem odd, Smith does a great job of detailing how Hobbits take pleasure in life and what this can mean for us non-Hobbits if we follow their advice.

Since I want you to read the book,  I will  present just a smidgen of the Shire  Wisdom here.

The first step to contentment is that your home must be a ‘snug’ place.  If your home does not feel warm and welcoming when you open the door, it is difficult to be happy there. *

Eat well of a wide variety of good food when you are hungry while also taking pleasure in your meals.  It is hard to feel content or to think clearly when you are hungry.

Get plenty of exercise, especially by walking everywhere you can.  Walking a wooded trail is a great source of contentment.

Grow a vegetable garden.  This provides you with good food along with exercise.  Pulling weeds can be quite meditative.

Sleep is vital to well-being.  After hard work, it is necessary to sleep long, dream-filled hours in order to process the day (through dreams) and recuperate and refresh your spirit along with your body.

Be open to new ideas and great adventures.  As my grandmother used to say when we were lost or something unexpected happened, “We are having an adventure!”  This puts a positive spin to life’s events.

In addition to his advice, Smith also includes in each chapter relevant tidbits from the Tolkien lore.  He concludes the book with a ‘quiz’ to determine how much of a Hobbit you are.  This quiz is really  for the deep-dyed Hobbit and LOTR fans who’ve read the books multiple times and seen the movies over and over.   I’ve seen the movies (once) and read the books (once, when I was 14), so I do not qualify.  But we can all use the Wisdom of the Shire to make 2016 a year of happiness and contentment.

*Advice in another book I read recently will help increase contentment in your home: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

The Bandwidth Tax

The brain has limited bandwidth.

Scarcity is the limiting factor that can make life more difficult whether the scarce resource is money, time, energy, etc.  It becomes more difficult to make appropriate decisions when the brain’s cognitive capacity is focused on that scarce resource.  Thinking of cognitive capacity as ‘bandwidth’ allows us to realize that there is only so much bandwidth available.  If we are already heavily using it, for instance, by trying to figure out how we will pay this month’s bills, there is little left over for other important decisions, such as planning how to save for a college education.

This issue of scarcity and how it affects decision-making is taken on by authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives. A major point of the authors is that scientific research has shown that scarcity actually reduces IQ: when scarcity pressure reduces bandwidth, there is too much going on to effectively process all that needs to be done or decided.

Mullainathan and Shafir devote a large portion of the book to discussing poverty and its relationship to scarcity and bandwidth reduction.  Many of those who are poor may appear to make unfortunate decisions.  It is not because they are incapable of making better choices, but because their cognitive bandwidth is over-taxed due to their inadequate resources.  In one experiment, “The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient.  Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity.  Just like the processor that is slowed down by too many applications, the poor here appear [italics in original] worse because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.”  p. 52   “We would argue that the poor do have lower effective [italics in original] capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” p. 60

Poverty is a serious issue for the future since it affects the children.  “Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States will at some point be on food stamps.  About 15 percent of American households had trouble finding food for the family at some point during the year.” p.147  Not only are children going hungry, but their parents have trouble parenting due to reduced cognitive bandwidth.  “Being a good parent requires many things.  But most of all it requires freedom of mind.  That is one luxury the poor do not have.”  p. 137  How can children do well in school when their cognitive bandwidth is occupied with hunger and a chaotic home life?   “An overtaxed bandwidth means a reduced ability to process new information…Our data…suggest that much of the correlation between income and classroom performance may be explained by the bandwidth tax… Absorbing new information requires working memory.” p. 158

Many of the poor are striving for  better lives for themselves and their children.  A college education is now considered a basic requirement for many jobs, but the cost of a college education has sky-rocketed at the same time as grants and scholarships have become more difficult to obtain and/or cover less of the cost.  Students are then forced to go heavily into debt, work while taking classes, or both.  These students are experiencing scarcity of money and of time. “…the financially strapped student who misses some easy questions looks incapable or lazy.  But these people are not unskilled or uncaring, just heavily taxed.  The problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.” p. 65

Poverty will be a multi-generational trap that is impossible to escape if nothing is done to reduce the load on cognitive bandwidth.  The poor have to constantly re-certify to get food stamps and other government programs. But the neediest often fail to do so because of the bandwidth tax: they forget.  This is a tax on poverty.  “To see the logic of taxing bandwidth, think about it this way.  Imagine we imposed a hefty financial charge to filling out applications for financial aid.  We would quickly realize that this is a silly fee to impose; a program aimed at the cash stretched should not charge them much cash.  Yet we frequently design programs aimed at people who are bandwidth-stretched that charge a lot in bandwidth.” p. 222   “…the bandwidth tax was sizable: roughly thirteen to fourteen IQ points, with an equally large effect on executive control.  These are … very large effects on cognitive function… the bandwidth tax plays a similarly large role in the lives of the poor everywhere.”  p. 161-62

Benefits to the poor, such as food stamps, should be paid weekly rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of month.  This smooths out the boom/bust cycle.  We need to “…create long periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity.”  p. 223   “The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place.  Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.” p. 161

There are a number of ways in which government and business could reduce the bandwidth tax on the poor.  If you are poor and have kids, having highly-subsidized day care frees up lots of bandwidth and makes life easier. “We’d be taking a cognitive load off.  As we’ve seen, this would help your executive control, your self-control more broadly, even your parenting. It would increase your general cognitive capacity, your ability to focus, the quality of your work… [H]elp with child care…is a way to build human capital of the deepest kind: it creates bandwidth.” p. 176-77

Jobs paying minimum wages require those with children to work two or more jobs in order to be able to pay the bills.  This situation is aggravated when these jobs do not provide consistent work schedules.  “In the United States, something as simple as inconsistent work hours…can cause juggling and perpetuate scarcity.  A solution would be to create the equivalent of unemployment insurance against such fluctuations in work hours, which to the poor can be even more pernicious than job loss.”  p. 178

In order to solve poverty, we must realize that simply having a job is inadequate.  “Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity.  And just as a financial tax can wreak havoc in one’s budget, so can a bandwidth tax create failure in any of several domains to which a person must attend.” p. 179-80   Social programs and employment structure need to be redesigned: “…a better design will have to incorporate fundamental insights about focusing and bandwidth that emerge from the psychology of scarcity.” p. 181

Our cognitive capacity bandwidth is limited.  If it is taxed by inadequate pay, inconsistent work schedules, lack of childcare, unhealthy and/or insufficient diet, a polluted environment, inadequate social services and infrastructure, among many other scarce resources, it should not be surprising if the poor seem trapped in a cycle of poverty.   Mullainathan and Shafir have provided a method for reframing and solving this crisis.  Will we care enough to implement it?

Vegan Diets Cannot Save the Planet

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith.   I won’t repeat what I said in that post except to note that humans are not meant to be vegans.  We need to eat animal protein (fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, some red meat) in order to be healthy.  Fatty fish and eggs are especially important for proper brain growth, development, and health.  Refusing to eat them could result in decreased mental ability as one ages.

Another recent fad is the raw food movement. Now, I am not against eating raw foods.  However, I am against the concept that one should eat only raw foods, especially if that means only vegan raw foods (i.e. no sushi).

As neuroscientist Susanna Herculano-Houzel notes in her TED talk, cooking food allowed our human brains to expand in neuronal number and connections far beyond what would be expected for a primate our size.  If our ancestors had not begun cooking their food, especially meat, we would not be advanced much beyond chimpanzees in brain capacity and ability.

Human Brains Need Cooked Food

Vegan/vegetarian diets will also not save our planet from destruction.  Keith covers some of the reasons for this in her book, but ecologist Allan Savory’s TED talk provides yet another reason that humans need meat in their diets: in order to reverse climate change and desertification, we need to have large herds of animals mimicking the herds that once roamed the savannas and grasslands.

Herd Animals Can Reverse Climate Change

Savory’s thesis seems counter-intuitive.  Even he thought that before he tried it.  The results are amazing.

Points to ponder and remember:
1] We need cooked animal protein for healthy brains and bodies.
2] Managing herd animals correctly can save the planet.
3] Grasses (wheat, corn, rice, etc.) are for herd animals to eat, while the herd animals are for us to eat.

See you at the barbecue!




Natural Parenting

I define “Natural Parenting” as that which humans did for at least 2 million years and which, until recently, most modern foragers also did.  If this type of parenting worked successfully for millions of years, maybe we ‘moderns’ should think about modifying modern life to better incorporate natural parenting.

Aka parents are considered among the best in the world.

Some parents are doing a modified version of natural parenting called ‘attachment parenting.’  Mayim Bialik has written a book (Beyond the Sling)which discusses attachment parenting in great detail using her experience and that  of her husband in raising their two sons, along with some anecdotes of their friends.  And, yes, this is written by ‘Amy’ from the Big Bang Theory. She is an actual neuroscientist with a PhD: she studied the hormones of attachment .  Both her education and experience provide credibility for advancing the idea that attachment parenting is the way children should be parented.

As can be seen in a comparison of what I wrote in Natural Parenting and what Bialik writes in Beyond the Sling,  we have many points of agreement, particularly that breast is best and co-sleeping is a great idea that encourages breast-feeding on demand.

If you are thinking about getting pregnant or already young children, I recommend this book on attachment parenting as the natural way to parent with 3 BIG caveats.

1. A vegan diet is not natural for humans. We need a diet with about 20% animal protein. The reason her kids nurse for 4 – 5 years is that they NEED the animal protein of her milk in order to be healthy. Clearly, she enjoys this type of attachment so much that she has not considered the biological reason her children are nursing well beyond the usual age of weaning.

2. Homeopathy ‘treatments’ are psychological (placebo), not physical.  If they do no harm and make you feel better psychologically, I suppose they are not a problem.  However, if you think they will actually cure an illness, think again.

3. I cannot believe that a neuroscientist would so foolish as not to vaccinate her children! The non-vaccinating crowd is too young (under 55) to have lived through the horrors of epidemic diseases and do not realize that their ‘choice’ could have devastating consequences not only for their own kids, but for babies, the elderly, and immuno-compromised individuals who cannot be vaccinated and who will become ill when exposed to her unvaccinated kids.

Those caveats aside, much of Bialik’s advice on parenting is very good.  Unfortunately, modern work situations do not provide the flexibility that Bialik, as an actress, has to fully implement attachment parenting.  She realizes this as she gave up the opportunity for an academic career because it would make attachment parenting almost impossible.

Women who want or need to work, but lack the flexibility that Bialik has, encounter tremendous difficulties in being the parents they would like to be.  Attachment parenting is not even an option.  Liz O’Donnell makes this clear in her book Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. Twenty-five years after The Second Shift was published, women who work outside the home or as entrepreneurs are still doing the vast, vast majority of housework and childcare. This has to change. O’Donnell uses the stories of a wide variety of women to detail the problems and outline the solutions. One of the things that needs to change is the idea that childcare is a woman’s issue. It is a parental issue. Businesses and the school system must be modified so that both men and women can be fully-involved parents.

Attachment and natural parenting would have more of a chance to occur if parents in the United States were given paid maternal and paternal leave, as is the case in all other advanced countries in the world.  In fact, there are only 3 other countries in the entire world besides the US that do not provide paid maternal leave.  The United States also needs to provide better childcare options for parents. Having businesses and schools provide on-site childcare would be a tremendous help.  Expanding the childcare tax credit and updating the 1976 reimbursement levels to 2014 levels would also make life easier for parents.  It may also make sense to move from a state that does not support working mothers.

Natural parenting has been effective for millions of years.  If we want physically and psychologically healthy children, we need to modify modern society to enable natural parenting.






Save your Brain!


A few decades ago, a talk show co-host  infamous for his temper bragged that he needed only four hours of sleep.  Current research has shown that the two are connected.  Inadequate levels of sleep lead to reduced willpower and increased inability to maintain an even temperament.  If you find your temper easily frays or that your thinking is sluggish, look to how much you sleep.  Sleep deprivation impairs glucose regulation which negatively impacts willpower. The result may be a frayed temper along with a series of poor decisions.

Reduced willpower and sluggish thinking as a result of inadequate sleep may be caused by deterioration of neurons in the brain. These neurons work hard when you are awake and can become over-stressed if there is not enough of a recovery period during sleep.   As neurons break down, so does your thinking.

Although the ideal number of hours of sleep vary by individual and by age, research at the National Sleep Foundation  suggests that the average adult needs 7 – 8 hours of sleep to achieve optimal physical and mental health results.  You can read more about the importance of sleep in the chapter ‘To Sleep…’  in Walking in Sunshine.

Download the Book!

Sun graphic2  Walking in Sunshine: LifeStyle Changes to Make for a Bright, Healthy Future, the book that can change your life, is now available for free download.  Click on  the link, download the PDF, and

Discover Why:

  • adaptations matter
  • walking is the best exercise
  • sunshine is necessary
  • proper diet = better health
  • natural parenting is effective parenting

Best Way to Begin the Day

8The best way to begin the day is awaking after having slept 7 to 9 hours.  I will discuss sleep in more detail in a later post, but for now it is important to know that a good night’s sleep is critical to your health and well being.

Once awake, you need to hydrate and stretch.  I drink a cup of fruit tea while doing a series of flexibilities.  The flexibilities keep my joints loose, get the blood flowing to my brain, and energize me.  Click here to access the PDF of the Flexibilities so that you can begin doing them yourself.

Once stretched and hydrated, it is time for a healthy breakfast. A good breakfast makes for a good day.  I suggest a two egg omelet (actual eggs, not egg whites) with tomato salsa.  I also eat a bowl of blueberries (frozen, but thawed) and a half grapefruit (in season).  Eggs provide high-quality protein and are good for the brain.  Breakfast must include high-quality protein.

Well-rested, hydrated, stretched, and well-fed: this is the best way to begin the day.

You Can Be a Vaccination Hero

SedonaAHThe United States is in the midst of a widespread flu epidemic. Every year, thousands die from the flu and flu-related complications, not to mention the millions of hours of lost productivity resulting from those who are ill from the flu.

Having lived through the Flu Pandemic of 1968-1969 (it knocked me out of school for two weeks and took many more weeks for me to fully recover; around 34,000 died in the US), I cannot understand why anyone would not get vaccinated against the flu.  Yes, it is not foolproof, but the probability is much higher that you will be able to avoid the flu if you are vaccinated than if you are not.

Last year, the CDC Report stated that “90 percent of children who died from flu this season [2013] [were] not vaccinated.”   The CDC reported that , as of January 18, 2014, 20 children had died of the flu, at least two of whom had not been vaccinated.  It is probable that the other children were not vaccinated, but that the parents were reluctant to admit that.

Perhaps many of those who do not get vaccinated are relying (consciously or not) on herd/community immunity: they hope that enough other people get vaccinated to reduce flu transmission so that they won’t get the flu.  However, herd/community immunity only works if most of the population is vaccinated.  Freeloading may get you ill or dead.  Freeloading may also mean that you cause illness (or even death) in individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to underlying health issues.  I suggest you view getting  vaccinated as something you can do to help your community.  Vaccination saves lives.   You will be a quiet hero.

DNA and Race

I just finished reading DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes.  This is a very odd book.  I was expecting to read a major genetic analysis of population diversity in the US.  Instead, it is more a travel log of Sykes’ tour of American landmarks with a few, essentially random, meetings with individuals where their DNA was collected for analysis. This analysis is discussed in one, relatively brief, concluding chapter. The topic of the book was more genealogical than genetic.

It seems that Sykes may have been hoping to write a book about the US similar to those Bill Bryson has written about Britain and Australia.  DNA USA somewhat resembles Bryson’s book on Australia: In a Sunburned Country, but Sykes does not have Bryson’s comedic flare nor verbal virtuosity.

Having said that, once I got past the fact that the book was not what I expected, I did enjoy reading it, perhaps because I have been to most of the places Sykes visited. In addition, I am interested in the ways in which genetics can inform, but also misinform (or, more precisely, under-inform) genealogy.

Sykes is a geneticist who uses mtDNA (passed through the maternal line) and Y chromosome (passed through the paternal line) to tie genetic information to the past. Soon after he began this research, he began to be inundated with requests from the general public to have their DNA analyzed.  Sykes made the decision to create a business, Oxford Ancestors, designed to meet this need. A similar business model, African Ancestry, was set up in the US by Rick Kittles and Gina Paige.

While some interesting genetic information can be obtained from these methods, vast amounts of information are unavailable.  To simplify this, think about a woman who has one or more sons, but no daughters.  Her mtDNA will not show up in her grandchildren since the only material passed from the sperm to the egg is the nuclear DNA (nDNA), not any mtDNA.  If her granddaughter has her mtDNA analyzed, the granddaughter will learn about her mother’s genetic line, but nothing about her paternal grandmother’s line.  The grandson can learn about his paternal grandfather’s line (along with his maternal line), but, again, nothing about his paternal grandmother’s line.  A huge chunk of genetic knowledge is unavailable by these methods. Not to mention that the actual amount of genetic information in mtDNA and the Y chromosome is extremely tiny compared to nDNA. Making broad statements about anyone’s ancestry when so much information is missing is, at the least, highly problematic.  Yet, that is exactly what genetics researchers using these two methods claim.  These claims even extend to human origins. I don’t wish to get into that topic more deeply in this blog post.  However, given what I’ve just written, I hope readers will apply great caution towards accepting claims about human origins made on such limited mtDNA and Y chromosome data.

For his American odyssey, Sykes decided to use a new, more informative genetic analysis developed by the company 23andMe. As described by Sykes, 23andMe uses nDNA and creates a colored portrait of an individual’s 22 autosomal chromosomes.  Prior nDNA researchers who analyzed the DNA of individuals from many different countries found genetic variants that are associated with particular groups.  For ease of analysis, these variants were lumped into three continental groups: Asian, European, and African.  For the purposes of analysis in the US, Asian is a proxy for Native American since genetic research has shown that these groups have a common origin. This method accesses information from both parents while also giving information on specific genes that have been identified on each chromosome.  In these respects, tying genetics to genealogy is more effective and complete than is the case with mtDNA or Y chromosome analyses. However, it is still incomplete.

The image below shows the process of genetic recombination during meiosis.  The orange and green represent one chromosome pair from the man while the pink and blue represent the same chromosome pair from the woman.  During meiosis, the chromosomes make a copy of themselves.  These copies line up close enough that chunks of DNA can be exchanged between the chromosomes.  Upon completion of meiosis, one chromosome each ends up in the sperm and egg.  These chromosomes passed on to their child represent only a small fraction of the DNA diversity in the parents.  As this process occurs in each generation, huge amounts of genetic information are lost over the generations.  If solid-color chromosomes were the ones in the egg and sperm, all genetic information for that chromosome from one paternal and one maternal grandparent would be lost in the child. Therefore, while nDNA is better for analyzing genetic history, it is by no means a complete picture of an individual’s genealogy.

Given these caveats, the method used by 23andMe does provide a great deal of useful information that is presented in the visually appealing format of chromosome painting. It is in the final chapter describing the genetic ‘portraits’ of the few individuals from whom Sykes obtained DNA that he makes observations that are particularly relevant to the subject of whether or not race is biological.  You might think that Sykes would support the idea of biological races given that these genetic methods divide the world into three groups: Asian/Native American, European, and African.  But Sykes recognizes that these are over-simplifications of actual diversity and views them more as geographical, rather than biological entities.

Americans are especially revealing in that most of them display genetic diversity rather than uniformity.  The only individuals Sykes analyzed that did not display diversity were the members of a genealogical society in Boston who could trace their ancestry in America back to the 17th and 18th centuries.  He found this quite surprising and concluded that any of their ancestors who inter-married with Native Americans became part of those cultural groups rather than the European-descent cultural group.  This is supported by the genetic analysis of individuals of Northeast Native American ancestry whose chromosome analyses show their genes to be almost entirely European derived.  European Americans with Southern ancestry showed some genetic evidence of African ancestry, while all African Americans showed European and Native American ancestry, although the percentages differed widely.  Sykes concluded that “…many whites with deep roots in the South have some black ancestors.” (p.313)  He mentions that he would like to have analyzed the DNA of a Ku Klux Klan member because he is pretty sure it would have sections indicating genes with African ancestry.  It would have been interesting to find out how that individual reacted to this knowledge.

Sykes notes that assuming because of someone’s appearance and/or culture that you can draw any conclusions about their genetics and health concerns demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the complexity of genetic inheritance.  As an example, Sykes points out that he has African ancestry for the tip of chromosome 11 while one of the African-American men he analyzed has European ancestry for that same region.  As this region includes the genes for beta-globin, Sykes states, contrary to what most physicians would conclude, that he, Sykes, could be a carrier for sickle cell anemia while the other man could not.

Another gene that showed diversity was P450 cytochromes found on chromosome 10.  This gene produces proteins which help to clear drugs and toxins from the liver.  Medical researchers have found that an African-derived form of the gene is less effective.  This led to different, lower dosing recommendations of drugs such as beta-blockers for African Americans.  However, since Americans have diverse genetic ancestry, simply assuming an individual African American should have a lower dose than an individual European American can lead to major errors.  Sykes states, “…that of my nine African American volunteers, only three have both copies of their P450 gene from African ancestors, three have one European and one African copy, and the genes of the remaining three are completely European.”  On the other hand, one of his southern European-American volunteers had the African form of the gene.  Racially categorizing these individuals would lead to medical errors.

The conclusion I draw from this book is one I have long held. Racial categories have little meaning whether they are assumed to be cultural or biological because genetics and culture have no necessary overlap.



Half the Sky

We ignore women, their needs, their rights, their abilities, at the peril of our future.  Their issues are not ‘women’s issues’, they are humanity’s issues. The attempts to marginalize and/or ignore women may well be major factors in why the world is in such trouble economically and politically.  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her recent TED talk points out that women are marginalized in financing: they get micro-loans rather than entrepreneurial loans.  Granted, a micro-loan is better than no loan, but her point is that when a woman creates a business it is viewed as less important and less economically valuable than when a man creates one.  Treating women as ‘less than’ negatively affects all aspects of not only their lives, but their children’s lives, and, although the men generally do not recognize it, the lives of men, too.  Simple reasoning makes this obvious: women make up half of humanity; or, as in the Chinese proverb that provided the title for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, “Women hold up half the sky.”

As I write this, it is reported in the news that an Afghani women was strangled by her mother-in-law because she gave birth to a third daughter and not a son.  Her husband also appears to have been involved in her murder.  Sons are valued so much more than daughters that failure to give birth to one can lead to a woman’s death.  A woman can destroy her family’s honor by being raped.  The ‘solution’ is for her to marry her rapist, or to be put to death.  Being jailed for being raped actually protects the woman from abuse and/or death.  The girl’s hymen is no longer intact, so she no longer has value and has thus dishonored her family. As Kristof and WuDunn state, “The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.” (p. 82)

Young girls are ‘sold’ into marriages where they become virtual slaves.  Choosing your own boyfriend can result in your death. These examples all involve Afghanis, but any culture that does not value woman equally with men will find ways to demean, mistreat, and abuse women.  For instance, a judge in Canada (and he is not alone in this, as similar views have been expressed by judges in the United States) gave a mild (no jail time) sentence to a rapist because he, the judge, felt the woman had asked for it. These actions are done to keep women in their place, a place that is well below that of men.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a moving book highlighting the many, many ways women suffer from oppression throughout the world.  But they have also written about the women who have fought back against oppression and who are making better lives for themselves and other women.  For this to happen, the women must see themselves as valuable and as equal to men.  Education is the key.  Cultures that oppress women seek to deny girls access to education.  But cultures can change.  This is something that is too often ignored.  Simply because it has ‘always’ been done this way does not mean that it always will be done that way.  Holding back girls and women results in holding back the future.  Clinging to the culture of the past not only marginalizes women, but marginalizes that culture in an interconnected and globalized world.  Cultures can and do change.  Education is the first, vital step.

Education gives girls knowledge and with knowledge they begin to realize that they should have a voice in their lives; a say in what happens to them. With knowledge comes the power to fight back against injustice.  The first girls and women in their communities to come to this realization are very courageous.  They frequently must endure great abuse and hardship.  But they and their stories, as told by Kristof and WuDunn, serve as examples to other women and girls that change is possible, and change begins to happen.

Enmeshed with education are the healthcare needs of girls and women.  Girls who do manage to attend grade school often disappear from school when they begin to menstruate because the schools lack the facilities the girls need during their period.  A husband and brother in India realized just obtaining pads for menstruating girls and women was a problem, so he set out to solve this.  Girls are also often forced into marriage at that time, which also ends their education.  They need a way to manage their menstrual cycle and to obtain birth control so that they can continue their education.  Denying birth control to girls and women because of religious reasons (as has been done with US foreign aid) in effect denies them a future of their own choice.

When a large percentage of women in a particular country are educated and enfranchised, their political power is harder to ignore.  Issues that had been ignored, such as public health and children’s health, move to the political mainstream.  When women become the majority in the government, massive cultural change is certain.  In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a bloody genocide.  When peace was restored, a new government decreed that women had to hold at least 30% of the seats in all legislative bodies.  Women now hold 56% of the seats in Parliament.  Rwandan culture has changed dramatically.  Rwanda is leap-frogging into the 21st century because the country realized that women are as valuable as men.

China has a long history of valuing sons more than daughters, so much so that with the one child policy and elective abortion, the country now has an unbalanced male/female ratio.  However, the government now realizes that a better policy is to educate girls and women.  When women are well-educated, they want to use their skills in the workplace.  This delays marriage and child-bearing while also improving the economy. Parents now realize that daughters can be just as valuable as sons. A win-win for China: slowed population growth along with rapid growth in gross domestic product. India also sees the value of educating women.  Bunker Roy created the Barefoot College which educates the poor to become technicians and engineers, among other occupations.  According to Roy, men are untrainable.  Instead, the Barefoot College trains grandmothers.

In the 21st century, women in all cultures must be equal participants in all aspects of life and business if we are to deal with the challenges the world will face.  Corporations are discovering that those boards of directors with a higher percentage of women are significantly more profitable than those with the lowest number of women on their boards.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide should be read by anyone who cares about the future.  The tales the authors have collected in their journeys around the world are moving, enlightening, and uplifting.  While oppression is common and severe, it is possible for change to occur.  The book concludes with a plan of action and a long list of things that the reader can do to contribute to the change that must occur.  The website (linked to above) also provides opportunities for action.  “Women are half the sky.”  We cannot succeed in the 21st century without equality for all women and men.