EXII Book Review: Half the Sky

Highlight of Book Review from Fall 2010 Exponent II

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Vintage Books, 2009, 254 pages.

A Call to Care

As the title suggests, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, investigates gender inequality throughout the world with the call for readers to address women’s issues as “the paramount moral challenge of the 21st century.” Written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, a married couple who have traveled the world reporting on human rights since witnessing the Tiananmen Square massacre, the book reflects the authors’ own passion to denounce and spread awareness about all types of human suffering as well as offer strategies to change the world.

Through their engaging essays which offer historical context, heart-breaking yet inspiring storytelling, excruciating detail, and startling statistics, they show how education, medical care, and aid can make a difference to women and communities throughout the world. They focus on three horrific injustices: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality in the developing world. Giving the victims names and faces, they portray the suffering, audacity, determination, and hope of those who overcome their personal history as well as the heartache of those who do not. This is described vividly with atrocities such as teenagers who are sold into forced prostitution and contract AIDS, women who are raped and forced to marry their perpetrators, and women who suffer obstetric fistulas and become incontinent which leads to ostracization from their communities and often death.

Recognizing the complexities of such situations, the authors candidly discuss how their own efforts to help sometimes went awry. For example, even though they bought a prostitute’s freedom, she later returned to her brothel both as a consequence of being shunned by her home community upon her return home as well as a drug addiction which was initiated to keep her compliant when she was held prisoner in the brothel. But undeterred by complications, the authors show how individuals and organizations can help women in difficult circumstances, offering the hope and perspective that people can make a difference. They describe how international aid helped Srey Rath, a Cambodian girl, build a business to support her family after she escaped from her brothel, and helped sustain organizations like the Edna Adan Hospital in Somaliland, which continues to save women dying from obstetric fistulas.

Another focus of the book explains the success of communities that take care of, educate, and enable women economically. In addition to describing how individuals and families benefit from micro-lending, the book describes how China became an economic power by employing women in factories, which although not perfect, provided jobs and opportunities and moved the culture away from historic foot-binding, concubinage, and female infanticide. Half the Sky, titled after the Chinese Proverb “women hold up half the sky,” transforms women’s issues into human issues by highlighting how the plight of women is directly linked to global problems like poverty, maternal health, and education.

Although I have always been concerned about women’s rights, reading about the power of individuals and charities was a reminder to expand my brand of American feminism to include all women worldwide while remembering issues stateside. When I finished reading Half the Sky, I felt compelled to follow its simple suggestions to select and donate to an organization of my choice, look at websites for more information, and encourage people in my daily life to do the same. It made me want to be an activist, to truly show my compassion, concern, and faith by caring for poor and needy women throughout the world. I could appreciate how we are all in this sisterhood together.

Half the Sky’s premise is that the oppression of women is an ignored injustice that requires a grass roots movement to effect change. Reading the book is the first step to becoming informed. I hope it continues to motivate many people, whether secular humanists or religious believers, to reach out and help in the global community, even just by helping one person. For me, this resonates with Mormonism which proclaims “And if it so be that you should labor all your days … and save it be one soul … how great shall be your joy … !” (D&C 18:15). To feel the tremendous moral responsibility to emancipate women and strengthen individuals and communities only brings more passion to the cause. ■


While the book review stands by itself in the Fall 2010 edition of Exponent II, we thought it was worth cross-posting here to generate discussion.  What are your impressions of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide?  What sections of the book were the most powerful, persuasive, or even troublesome?  How does thinking of global Women’s issues affect your perception of other Feminist issues?  How do you reach out beyond your normal sphere of influence?  How do you think this fits with the mission of the Exponent?

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12 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    I need to read this book. I heard about it when it first came out, but I’ve been avoiding it — too afraid that I will find what I read in there immensely painful and that ultimately, I’ll just feel powerless to do anything to help.

    Sariah, were you overwhelmed by the scope and awfulness of the problem as you read?

  2. CatherineWO says:

    Like Caroline, I find myself avoiding some of these issues simply because they seem so overwhelming. I have donated to a couple of international aid organizations that help women, but it hardly seems like enough. I do believe though that anything we do is worth it, even if it only helps one person. Perhaps that’s the attitude I need to take more often.
    Now you have me thinking, I’m just going to have to read the book. I need to be more aware. This clearly fits in with my feminist goals and activism.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    I found this book heartbreaking and yet much more hopeful than I would have thought possible. I was really glad I read it and hope more women will do the same. This book illustrates like few others that women are not treated equally throughout the world.

    Though I still don’t have great ideas on how to fix these inequalities, I do feel like becoming educated about such atrocities and discussing them with others is a good first step.

    Has anyone read this book as part of a Relief Society book group? I think that would be such a great venue for it and need to suggest it for my own.

  4. Marjorie Conder says:

    I too avoided this book for a while. But I finally bought it, read it and it has almost continually been on loan since. This book is both ghastly and hopeful. As bad as the situations it paints are, it does not just leave one hand-wringing. Rather, it is a mighty call to action. At the end of the book there are enough pre-vetted places to help that virtually anyone should find something that calls out to her. My own take was that education, and parity for girls in education, is the only long term solution. So that is where I am putting my money.

  5. Lorie says:

    One of the most important questions Half the Sky asks us to consider as Mormon feminists is the following: What happens to a culture or an organization that underutilizes the talents and abilities of half it’s members, that excludes them from participation in its decision-making councils and circumscribes their sphere of influence simply because they were born female?

  6. Sariah says:

    Caroline, While reading the beginning of Half the Sky, I consciously thought “this is awful, I want to stop reading” but I found I couldn’t put it down. I read it in two sittings. The book starts with a particularly heavy hammer describing sex trafficking, but I found myself wanting to understand the issues, and as the book continued found myself reassured by the hope it offers, that even doing something is better than doing nothing. It is probably best reading it with that spirit – though some find the necessity to take it in small doses.

    CatherineWO, The book also made me want to be an activist and that is what I am particularly grateful for.

    Marjorie, I think finding one cause that one really believes in is important because nobody can do everything. Thus spreading the word is of necessity to create a snowball effect. (Although the book has also made me wish I was independently wealthy and could start or work for a non-profit group full-time.)

    Emily, I read it as part of my RS group book. It was the passion of another that got a handful of people as passionate in response. We are talking about ways we can help a worldwide cause, someone even coordinated a fireside on microlending, but we haven’t found yet something to do as a group. Several of us have donated individually though. It was really good to have a group of people to discuss the issues with and try to maintain our enthusiasm.

    Lorie, I think you pose an extremely important difficult question that I hope others here will address. I think women should have a greater place in the leadership of the church, in roles they currently do not have. However, I don’t think that need is even on the radar of most of the men in the hierarchy of the church. I don’t know how to effect that change. Furthermore, the book also made me think a lot about God and how complex humanity actually is and how I don’t know how the two fit together sometimes. I can’t understand why women have been so historically undervalued and diminished in many cultures and religions. I’d like a divine explanation … In all seriousness, I really wish there were simple answers to a lot of these questions. But I hope I never stop thinking about these things.

    For now, I just try to maintain hope by thinking I can make a difference in the spheres of my influence. Thank you everybody for your thoughts and this discussion.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    This book was simply phenomenal. I agree with the prior comments — it was both incredibly depressing and strangely uplifting. I often find myself comparing it to Schindler’s List.

  8. Sijbrich says:

    While reading this book I never felt so afraid to be a woman, nor so proud to be one. As many of the other commentors have stated, it was incredibly tragic to read about the horrors that are accepted around the world (and even in the U.S.) today. But it was also amazing to read about the strength of many women who have overcome hardship and made a difference. I find myself looking more for opportunities to help those less fortunate than I.

  9. Corktree says:

    I just got my copy in the mail – can’t wait to read it!

  10. Sariah says:

    Corktree, I hope you enjoy reading it! I like Aaron’s comparison to Schindler’s List. It is a hard read but so phenomenally important. And Sijbrich, I hope you find those opportunities to make a difference. I think the key to the book is the desire to change the world!

  11. Sariah says:

    And to EmilyCC, Aimee, and all the Exponent staff, I just got my copy of the magazine in the mail today. It really looks beautiful in print. Thank you for including this review and message in it. It is nice to be part of such an awesome team!

  1. March 9, 2011

    […] September, a book review of Half the Sky was posted here from the Exponent II publication. Sariah did a wonderful job expounding on the importance of the […]

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