Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book, which may aptly be deemed a call to arms, takes its name from a Chinese proverb quoted at the beginning, “Women hold up half the sky.” Aside from reminding readers that women account for half of the world’s population, this proverb also says something deeper about women’s contribution to society: that they have the capability and the untapped power to represent half of the world’s production, economic growth, and political governance. This brief aphorism lays the foundation for the fury and horror that the rest of the book evokes. If women hold up half the sky, why are they not valued?

Half the Sky is separated by chapters devoted a type of oppression against women. There are chapters on maternal mortality, sex slave trafficking, and honor killings, to name a few. Each chapter has two sections; the first section explains the problem, explores some reasons and origins, and explains who is affected by it. The second section uses an aid project or existing mode of intervention to show how the problem can be confronted. In this way, Half the Sky begins by showing you the worst of what happens to women in today’s world, but softens the blow by describing some of the most inspiring and impressive organizations dealing with the issues.

Yes, I often teared up while reading this book, but that is part of its purpose. Kristof and WuDunn want to inspire people to activism by presenting them with facts and compelling personal stories. Half the Sky is extremely important for this reason—it lays out in a concise and well-organized fashion the worst gender inequities in today’s world. It presents facts that are both astounding and tragic:

Far more women and girls are shipped into brothels each year in the early twenty-first century than African slaves were shipped into slave plantations each year in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. (11)

Kristof and WuDunn point out that the focus should not be solely on changing legislation, although this is also part of the equation. The harder and more important change has to be a shift in attitude, which means pushing back on centuries of cultural tradition. This book greatly reinforced many of the things I already understood about how gender oppression functions across boundaries and cultures, but it also offered explanations that showed a familiar concept in a new light. In the chapter on honor killings and rape as a weapon of war, Kristof and WuDunn write:

Rape becomes a tool of war in conservative societies precisely because female sexuality is so sacred. Codes of sexual honor, in which women are valued based on their chastity, ostensibly protect women, but in fact they create an environment in which women are systematically dishonored. (83)

The concept of honor killings has haunted me for some time, particularly after reading Manal M. Omar’s Barefoot in Baghdad, where she so casually discusses the sexual repression and hypocrisy inherent in strict Islamic law. Half the Sky articulates this contradiction clearly. The stricter the societal sexual code, the more powerful and damaging sexual violation becomes. The more dangerous this violation is considered, the more power it carries in times of war.

Through example after example, this book demonstrates that the more economic power women have in their own families, the healthier their children, the higher the family income, and the greater the chance to escape generational poverty. The most effective solution that Half the Sky offers to combat all of the injustices faced by women today is education. When girls are educated, they make more money and are less likely to live in poverty. They are also more likely to have less children and less likely to suffer injury or death in childbirth.

Eleven percent of the world’s inhabitants live in sub-Saharan Africa, and they suffer 24 percent of the world’s disease burden—which is addressed with less than 1 percent of the world’s health care spending…The highest lifetime risk in the world is in the West African country of Niger, where a girl or woman stands a 1-in-7 chance of dying in childbirth. (98)

Half the Sky’s goal is to convince its readers that the global oppression of women is the most dire human rights issue of our time and I believe it succeeds. I think everyone should be required to read this book before graduating high school.

Half the Sky has a website devoted to the global movement it hopes to inspire, including a list of organizations that specialize in supporting women in developing and war-torn countries. Check it out!

Also check out Nicholas Kristof’s latest column in the NYTimes.

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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