Ritu Sharma, co-founder of Women Thrive International, reveals what she has learned from her experiences working to improve the situation of women living in poverty around the world in the inspiring book Teach a Woman to Fish. The book emphasizes the need to empower women through changes in the government—and involve women in decision making processes. This is illustrated through a collection of stories about the women from four countries (Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Burkina Faso) who are learning how to overcome the forces of poverty. These women’s stories are intermixed with her efforts to enact policy change in Washington D.C.; and each section is concluded by addressing “the broader systems that prevent women from leaving poverty behind” and provides examples of ways the reader can become involved in enacting change.
Sharma first describes the heartbreaking situation in Sri Lanka a year after the 2004 tsunami. Empowering Sri Lankan women to combat the devastation of the tsunami is difficult because of the many forces that keep them impoverished, including a dictatorial government system and a society that is ruled by men.
Next we learn of Sharma’s experiences in the countries of Honduras and Nicaragua. Here it is the women that tend over 60% of the land that produces the coffee and dairy products that the countries are, respectively, known for; yet these women have no voice. While Sharma tells encouraging stories of women succeeding in creating thriving businesses, the reader is reminded that Nicaragua is riddled with violence toward women and children–the biggest force that keep them in poverty. “Violence is an injustice that multiplies injustice,” Sharma says, adding, “I believe it’s the unquantifiable impacts of violence that are most profound.”
The book concludes with a section on Burkina Faso, which is located in the western portion of Africa. In this country, it is crucial for girls to have access to education since their greatest threat to poverty is childhood marriage. Additionally, women subsistence farmers experience injustices since they can only work with land that belongs to their husbands. Finally, the fact that many marriages are polygamous and have no legal standing only exacerbates the situation.
The strengths of the book are numerous: addressing root issues, giving a voice to four heroic women in impoverished countries, and encouraging activism are just a few. However the author’s conversational writing style often served as a distraction for me; the stories of the book compelled me to keep reading rather than the writing itself. Regardless, I think this book contains a wealth of thought provoking issues and questions and is well suited for a book club.