Teach a Woman to Fish
by Ritu Sharma

Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2014. ISBN 978-1-137-27858-7.
Reviewed by Anita Lock
Posted on 09/19/2014

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

Ritu Sharma, co-founder of Women Thrive, has written a stunning account of her travels through Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Burkina Faso—countries where her organization has worked with grassroots women's groups regarding poverty issues. Sharma's narrative includes a powerful collection of stories about the women from these four countries who have been learning how to overcome the forces of poverty. She also takes readers "one step further than other books that have popularized global poverty issues" by raising awareness "to the broader systems that prevent women from leaving poverty behind."

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "women reinvest about 90 percent of their income in their children rather than in themselves..." That being said, Sharma's underlying mantra throughout her narrative holds true: "When you teach a woman to fish, everyone eats. Development aid projects that overlook women miss their best opportunity to end the cycle of poverty."

Sharma first takes readers into Sri Lanka a year after the 2004 tsunami devastation. The information she shares is heartbreaking, since the majority of those who died as a result of the tsunami were women and children. Empowering Sri Lankan women and girls to move on is a daunting task because of the many forces that keep them impoverished, such as a dictatorial government system and a society that is ruled by men. In order for them to survive it is imperative for mothers to work from home. Girls either enter the exported labor force working as maids in the Middle East, or live in deplorable conditions so they can work in Export Processing Zone factories.

Next on Sharma's journey are the countries of Honduras and Nicaragua. Although they are known for their coffee and dairy products, respectively, the women who largely tend the land, like Sri Lankan women, have no voice. While there are encouraging stories, such as one organization that created three thriving businesses, the downside is 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."

Finally, heading to the western portion of Africa to Burkina Faso, Sharma's concern in this arid country is two-fold: to check the status of girls' education and women's subsistence farming. It is crucial for girls to build their educational opportunities since their greatest threat to poverty is childhood marriage. Concurrently, subsistence farming for women is tricky since they can only work with land that belongs to their husbands. The fact that many marriages are polygamous and have no legal standing only exacerbates the situation.

Amid the disheartening as well as immensely encouraging stories, Sharma does not mince words. Her writing aptly reflects each woman's heart cry for empowerment. An interesting addition to her narrative is her personal 72-hour experiences of living on a dollar a day. Of prime importance is her impassioned plea for readers not only to understand the truth behind poverty, but also to take action. Sharma cites very specific ways to address each country's needs.

Incredibly poignant and eye-opening, Teach a Woman to Fish goes beyond the "must read" category. Readers will turn into activists by the close of her book.

Ritu Sharma is a leading voice on international women's issues and US foreign policy. She is co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, a non-profit that places the concerns of women and girls living in poverty at the forefront of US international assistance. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland. Visit her website.

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