Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Genre: non-fiction, sociology, human rights, feminism, politics
A call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women in the developing world.
With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake a journey through Africa and Asia to meet an extraordinary array of women struggling under profoundly dire circumstances: a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery; an Ethiopian woman left for dead after a difficult birth; an Afghan wife beaten ruthlessly by her husband and mother-in-law. But we meet, as well, those who have triumphed—a formerly illiterate fistula patient who became a surgeon in Addis Ababa; an Indian woman who saved herself and her children from prostitution—and those who make it their work to provide hope and help to other women: the victim of gang rape who galvanized the international community and created schools in rural Pakistan; the former Peace Corps volunteer who founded an organization that educates and campaigns for women’s rights in Senegal. Through their stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to progress lies in unleashing women’s potential—and they make clear how each of us can help make that happen.
Well, this is a good book to make people think about problems women face around the world. This is why I support feminism and humanitarian outreach. My feminism isn’t the current battle in Hollywood about giant pay checks of the A-list actors. I’m far more interested in the common pay gap amongst the workforce majority and the lowest income jobs. I care about the availability of medical care, family planning, children’s vaccines and schooling. I’ve long given up on women’s magazines as poisonous tripe focused on wrinkles and pricy fashion but I do understand that we should criticise the media portrayal of women. Yet I can’t help but think this isn’t why our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for with suffrage and the fact that there are still millions of women who can’t even read let alone vote or have any say in their lives is just depressing. I believe our goal should be to raise other women to the level of rights we western women enjoy then we can make fashion our number one priority.
“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”
The problems this book highlights time and time again are far more relevant to me than what some feminist movements in the west talk about. We should help our sisters and brave male supporters in the developing world where maternal death is still a very real threat, not to mention lack of general medical care and education for girls and boys. This is what feminists should be far more vocal about. Poverty is to a large extent a female issue. It has also been proven that empowering women helps raise the whole society and make it prosper both economically and politically. Women are more likely to focus on education for their children, saving money, and helping their society in general.
“It’s no accident that the countries that have enjoyed an economic take off have been those that educated girls and then gave them the autonomy to move to the cities to find work.”
This book highlights so many issues and the ingenious ways people try and do solve them. I was happy to learn of many brave women and men helping those in need. I’m also happy that quite a lot of success stories come from grassroots organisations, which makes so much sense. It is naive to believe you can change the world by throwing money and resources at people. What is needed is a change in attitudes inside the culture and for that you need to support people from these societies. Helping them and hiring local people does far more than a battalion of foreign aid workers. Not every story and attempt is a success though and this means that organisations still have a lot to figure out.
“Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.”
I’m familiar with most of the issues in the book – forced prostitution, child marriage, lacking schooling for girls, rapes, honour killings, poverty, and lack of emancipation. The book describes these issues, using personal testimonies of women to engage our empathy were dry statistical data (if it even exists) would not help us grasp just how destructive misogyny and lack of resources are. It gently reminds us why these awful things need to go and where societies succeeded, which organisations helped and are still fighting. Highlighting harmful attitudes and historical or religious grounds for them helps you contextualise the destructive power of poor education. If people have no idea other attitudes exist and are far more beneficial to them than wife-beating or honour killings, how are they going to change? Seeing their wives, daughters or in-laws bring home money and contribute to the family budget, getting both sons and daughters through school, and helping the elderly parents with medical care makes a far greater impact on them than laws or western moralising.
“More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century. The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.”
That does not mean the west can ignore these issues and hope those struggling countries will solve them by themselves. Sometimes it takes only a small donation of money to support local girls and giving them an education. Providing uniforms, sanitary material (often girls miss school during their periods), and workbooks does more for girls than any other program – keeping them in school makes them better parents later on and the cycle of good practices continues. The girl effect is real and it also helps boys and men. A better educated woman knows how to help her family, she can provide, help her husband. If both partners work together, harmony is far easier to achieve.
“Our focus has to be on changing reality, not changing laws.”
Even though the book is focused mostly on women, the issues it describes affect men just as well. How many have lost wives, sisters or daughters? How many have illiterate family members? How many battle poverty? The goal of organisations and feminism isn’t to raise women above men – it is to help eradicate poverty and inequality and they do it by focusing on the most voiceless, the most neglected. The developing world and their women have the right to achieve the standards we enjoy and value so much. A world where women don’t die in childbed, where they receive prenatal care, where they aren’t sold off to brothels, and where they are a valued member of the economy is what we strive for.
“Decades from now, people will look back and wonder how societies could have acquiesced in a sex slave trade in the twenty-first century that is… bigger than the transatlantic slave trade was in the nineteenth. They will be perplexed that we shrugged as a lack of investment in maternal health caused half a million women to perish in childbirth each year.”
The book also points out why eradicating marginalisation of women can help achieve peace. Where women in Africa and Asia began to participate in politics and economy, the whole country stabilised and the level of crime went down. Another effect of women’s education is also lower birth rates and thus slower population growth giving governments more time to adjust and solve already existing issues – from economy, agriculture, education etc.
“Some security experts noted that the countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized. The reason there are so many Muslim terrorists, they argued, has little to do with the Koran but a great deal to do with the lack of robust female participation in the economy and society of many Islamic countries.”
A helpful index of organisations at the back of the book gives you an opportunity to support one or more of your choice and to further educate yourself. I really like that. I hope to make a meaningful and regular contribution to women in the developing world in the future. I also won’t forget the many poor in my own country since women are once again disproportionally represented there.
A book I heartily recommend to all readers!
I’m including these helpful links to the Half the Sky Movement site where you can learn more about the organisation and the work they do for women – here. And a link to their YouTube channel – here. They have many women’s stories there and I think you’ll be inspired by their strenght and perseverance.