"It is impossible to realize our goals while discriminating against half the human race. As study after study has taught us, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women."
—KOFI ANNAN, THE UN SECRETARY-GENERAL , 2006
Saima Muhammad would dissolve into tears every evening. She was desperately poor, and her deadbeat husband was unemployed and not particularly employable. He was frustrated and angry, and he coped by beating Saima each afternoon. Their house, in the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, was falling apart, but they had no money for repairs. Saima had to send her young daughter to live with an aunt, because there wasn't enough food to go around.
"My sister-in-law made fun of me, saying, 'You can't even feed your child,' " Saima recalled. "My husband beat me up. ... I had an awful life."
Sometimes Saima would take the bus to the market in Lahore, an hour away, to try to sell things for money to buy food, but that only led her neighbors to scorn her as a loose woman who would travel by herself. Saima's husband accumulated a debt of more than $3,000, and it seemed that this debt would hang over the family for generations. Then, when Saima's second child was born and turned out to be a girl as well, her mother-in-law, [Sharifa], exacerbated the tensions.
"She's not going to have a son," Sharifa told Saima's husband, in front of her. "So you should marry again. Take a second wife." Saima was shattered and ran off sobbing. Another wife might well devastate the family finances and leave even less money to feed and educate the children. And Saima herself would be marginalized in the household, cast off like an old sock. For days Saima walked around in a daze, her eyes red, and the slightest incident would send her collapsing into hysterical tears. She felt her whole life slipping away.
It was at that point that Saima joined a women's solidarity group affiliated with a Pakistani microfinance organization called Kashf Foundation. Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery to sell in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income—the only one in her household to do so. Saima brought her eldest daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband's debt.
Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.