Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

"It's true that there are many injustices in the world, many worthy causes competing for attention and support....We focus on this topic because, to us, this kind of oppression feels transcendent — and so does the opportunity."

So begins Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the third book by award-winning New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The authors, the first married couple to share a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, began reporting on international affairs in the 1980s. "This book is the outgrowth of our journey of awakening," write Kristof and WuDunn. The result is a harrowing look at some of the poorest countries on the planet, a sort of anti-travelogue filled with stories of women and girls who've been trafficked for sex, forced into prostitution, subjected to gender-based violence, denied education and basic medical care, and, far too often, cast aside as if they were disposable. Sadly, they are the kinds of stories that rarely make headlines — in part, say Kristof and WuDunn, because "journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but [not so good] at covering events that happen every day."

To their credit, Kristof and WuDunn have no patience for those kinds of excuses. They want their readers to "see" what they've seen, to feel the fear, desperation, and helplessness that far too many women and girls around the world experience on a daily basis. They want their readers to comprehend what it means that in sub-Saharan Africa the lifetime risk of dying childbirth is 1 in 22 (compared to 1 in 4,800 in the United States); that in China 39,000 baby girls die every year "because parents don't give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive"; or that a new bride is ritually burned to death in India approximately every two hours.

As Half the Sky makes clear, the indignities inflicted on women around the globe, intentionally or otherwise, is a moral burden we all must bear. Indeed, the authors compare the global struggle for women's rights in the twenty-first century to the movement to end slavery in the nineteenth century and the struggle against totalitarianism in the twentieth. According to Kristof and WuDunn, "people get away with enslaving village girls for the same reason that people got away with enslaving blacks two hundred years ago: victims are perceived as discounted humans." And despite the efforts of women's advocates worldwide and philanthropies such as the Nike and Novo foundations, the authors argue that much more needs to be done. After all, "sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women's issues than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue."

To that end, each chapter of Half the Sky introduces a new injustice — as well as a solution for "turning oppression into opportunity." As veteran journalists and seasoned travelers, Kristof and WuDunn are under no illusion that the solutions they propose will be embraced by conservative or patriarchal societies on purely moral grounds. Instead, they base their call for reforms on the simple, pragmatic fact that gender-based oppression invariably strangles a country's economic development. They cite the case of China, which saw its economy begin to take off in the 1980s after the Communist Party took steps to emancipate women and girls, and point to other countries, including Rwanda, Botswana, Tunisia, Morocco, and Sri Lanka, that are making progress economically and on the gender-equality front. They even commend sweatshops, which, despite the negative stereotype the word suggests, have generated "economic growth rates almost unprecedented in the history of the world — and creat[ed] the most effective antipoverty program ever recorded."

At the same time, Kristoff and WuDunn are aware that giving women the same rights and freedom as men — the Chinese model — is a non-starter in many countries where culture still prohibits the full participation of women in society. Their preferred solution, in such cases, is to refer readers to microlending sites such as Kiva.org, which funnel small micro-loans to bolster the economic self-sufficiency of would-be women entrepreneurs in developing countries and, in so doing, "protect them from abuse [moreso] than any laws could." To drive home the point, they share the story of Saima, a Pakistani woman, who with a $65 loan launched an embroidery business at her local market and used the proceeds from the business to keep her daughters in school, pay off her husband's debt, and renovate her home. Eventually, the steady income and respect from community members she earned led her husband to stop beating her.

Microlending and -finance are only part of the solution, however. Social entrepreneurs, homegrown or otherwise, also have a role to play — indeed, they are the real heroes of Half the Sky, and Kristoff and WuDunn spend much of the book telling their stories. There is, for example, the inspiring story of tiny Sunitha Krishnan, an Ashoka Fellow from India who started a school for the children of prostitutes in the former brothel where their mothers had worked and today continues her work with support from Catholic Relief Services and other American donors. Or Mukhtar Mai (Mukhtaran Bibi), an illiterate peasant girl from a rural village in the southern Punjab who was gang-raped by members of a higher-status clan for speaking out at a tribal assembly and then did something unheard of in that part of the world: rather than kill herself, as was she was supposed to, she reported the rape to the police and demanded that her attackers be prosecuted. Sometimes, the heroes in Half the Sky are men, like Zebene, an Ethiopian peddler, who hid and protected his teenage daughter Woineshet after a local village boy who fancied her as a bride kidnapped, raped her, and then threatened to kill her after she refused to comply. And sometimes they are well-heeled and American, like the late Allan Rosenfield, who parlayed decades of on-the-ground experience in the public health field into a $50 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and launched an organization called Averting Maternal Death and Disability (AMDD), which works with partners worldwide to make pregnancy and childbirth safer.

There are dozens of similar stories in the book, and they are all inspiring. But even Kristoff and WuDunn can be forgiven for sometimes sounding discouraged. As they explain in a chapter on sex trafficking, rescuing young girls from a life of prostitution in a country like Cambodia or India is a culturally fraught endeavor. Customs, attitudes, and grinding poverty often conspire against the best laid plans and intentions. Still, that fact cannot be used as an excuse to turn our backs or give up. "Even when a social problem is so vast as to be insoluble in its entirety," they write, "it's still worth mitigating."

For a thousand years, young girls and women in China were subjected to the custom of foot binding. In the same way that that practice became taboo, Kristof and WuDunn are optimistic that the worst aspects of gender-based inequality in much of the world will disappear, bringing us all closer to "the day when women truly hold up half the sky." If, like me, you hope that day arrives in your own lifetime, Half the Sky is a book you will want to read and share with others.