Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”
It took me longer than expected to read Half the Sky, not because it was badly written or uninteresting. It took me a long time because the content made me sick, and I needed to set the book aside periodically to regain my composure.
It has taken me awhile to get around to blogging about the book for the same reason. Even now, I feel nauseated as I write this post. I am also afraid I will not be able to write for very long without descending into an incoherent howl of rage.
For these reasons, my post will be shorter than it probably should be. The short version of this post is this: READ THIS BOOK and then TAKE ACTION. (At the end of the book, the authors provide the readers with specific, easy things we can do to help.)
The subject of Half the Sky is the oppression of women around the world. Kristof and WuDunn, a husband-and-wife journalist team, call the oppression of women (especially poor, uneducated women) “the central moral challenge” of our time, and rightly so.
In their book they focus on a few major topics: the sexual slave trade, female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape, and preventable maternal mortality. I thought I was reasonably well-educated about the plight of women in the world today, and I had heard about the existence of all of these horrors. However, I had no idea how wide-spread these abuses of women were.
Half the Sky is full of statistics. Here are few examples:
- “Our own estimate is that there are 3 million women and girls (and a very small number of boys) worldwide who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade” (10).
- “Approximately once every ten seconds, a girl somewhere in the world is pinned down. Her legs are pulled apart, and a local woman with no medical training pulls out a knife or razor blade and slices off some or all of the girl’s genitals. In most cases, there is no anesthetic.” (221)
- A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend. “Violence against women by an intimate partner is a major contributor to the ill health of women,” said the former director-general of WHO, Lee Jong-wook. (61)
Most people, though, do not respond emotionally to statistics. We respond to stories of real people, and so that is what Kristoff and WuDunn focus on their book. They get to know women from around the world who have endured horrific abuses, and they share their stories with us.
The positive message from this book, and it is a major one, is that these abuses of women are not inevitable. The women interviewed by Kristof and WuDunn are not just victims; they are survivors who have gone on to achieve some success in their lives.
How did these success stories happen? I am oversimplifying the answer, but basically it is education and microfinance. Women everywhere, of every class, can be victims of oppression, but poor, uneducated ones are the most vulnerable. This exchange between Kristof and an Indian policeman monitoring the border between India and Nepal exemplifies the callous attitude many people have towards poor women, especially when they are uneducated. The Indian officer explained to Kristof that he was looking for terrorists or terror supplies.
“What about trafficked girls?” Nick asked. “Are you keeping an eye out for them? There must be a lot.”
“Oh, a lot. But we don’t worry about them. There’s nothing you can do about them.”
“Well, you could arrest the traffickers. Isn’t trafficking girls as important as pirating DVDs?”
The intelligence officer laughed genially and threw up his hands.
“Prostitution is inevitable.” He chuckled. “There has always been prostitution in every country. And what’s a young man going to do from the time when he turns eighteen until when he gets married at thirty?”
“Well, is the best solution really to kidnap Nepali girls and imprison them in Indian brothels?”
The officer shrugged, unperturbed. “It’s unfortunate,” he agreed. “These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society. So that good girls can be safe.”
“But many of the Nepali girls being trafficked are good girls, too.”
“Oh, yes, but those are peasant girls. They can’t even read. They’re from the countryside. The good Indian middle-class girls are safe.” (23-24)
Clearly, poor, uneducated women are expendable. One way to help remedy this situation, is to provide poor women with the opportunity to be educated and to have ways to support themselves financially.
Doing this, obviously, takes money, but not that much by western standards. Kristof and WuDunn document many, many cases of women’s lives that are transformed when they are given the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to start small businesses. Sometimes as little as $100 can be enough to start a woman on her own successful business.
At the end of their book, they list some very specific things we readers can do to help ease the sufferings of at least one woman. As they write in their preface:
“We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way—not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.
This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.” (xxii)
For information on how you can help, click here