ASCENT OF WOMEN: OUR TURN, OUR WAY - A REMARKABLE STORY OF WORLDWIDE CHANGE by Sally Armstrong (Random House), 287 pages, $32 cloth. Sally Armstrong speaks about her travels and discoveries as part of the NOW Talks series on March 6, at the Drake Underground. See nowtoronto.com/nowtalks. Rating: NNN
You have to hand to it intrepid journalist Sally Armstrong. She's gone to some very unsafe places all over the world to uncover changes in the status of women and harnesses an astonishing volume of material to fashion a readable and informative book.
From Cairo to Afghanistan, Caracas to Lahore, Armstrong talks to change-makers who have risked their lives and family relationships to improve conditions for women.
She pays a price for her broad reach: at times you wish she'd linger on some of her subjects just a little longer. But the message is powerful, especially when she makes two essential points.
First, according to the Amnesty International award winner, the world simply can't afford to oppress over 50 per cent of its people. And when she says "afford," she's speaking literally, not metaphorically.
By examining activities in communities all over the planet, especially in Africa and India, she's determined that democracies grow when national economies rise, and nothing improves those economies more than empowering women.
She cites numerous examples of how women have made astonishing financial inroads with the simplest and least expensive ideas. Just building a fence, for example, enabled one farming community to take off.
She insists that it makes a difference when grants go to women instead of men. Women don't blow the profits on unnecessary luxuries, but instead funnel funds back to their families and communities.
Her second central premise is this: when it comes to making changes in places where fundamentalism or misogyny rules - whether in Afghanistan or Canada - don't, she declares, assume international agencies are the most important agents of change. Nothing works more effectively than grassroots organizing.
That's what worked to get justice for 160 rape victims in Kenya; that's how mothers rose up against genital mutilation in Senegal; and that's how Canadian women secured equality in the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.
You may wish for reports from China and more from South America, but even without those, Ascent Of Women makes an ironclad argument for listening to women's voices and giving women financial opportunities.