Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Half the Sky, by husband and wife journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is an incredible exploration of the major issues facing women worldwide, such as sex trafficking and forced prostitution, rape used as a tool of power and weapon of war, maternal mortality, and prohibition or lack of access to education. At times difficult to read – the authors do not skim over the brutal details in the personal stories they share of women they’ve met around the world – but by the end one is left with a feeling, a sure hope, that something can be done to bring about change.
Over the course of roughly ten years, the authors traveled extensively through Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. During that time they interviewed countless women – women they met in brothels, in hospitals, in rural villages, and working for local non-profits. The stories are heartbreaking and astounding, often focusing on the triumph of courageous individuals who have struggled and found a way to overcome immense challenges to change their lives, and the lives of women around them. However, the authors don’t point to them as exceptional and unlikely stories, but rather as examples of how we should strive to affect change for all impoverished and oppressed women worldwide.
They describe a number of non-profits working in all corners of the globe that have had a major affect on the women, and men, in the areas they serve. Examples include Prajwala, an organization in India that rescues and rehabilitates young women from prostitution, offering them counseling and job training to begin a new life; Mukhtar Mai School for Girls, offering classes for young girls in rural Pakistan who otherwise would have no access to education; and HEAL Africa, a hospital in Congo that performs fistula surgeries for women to repair injuries that many women in Africa suffer from following rape or complications from childbirth because no doctor was present. These, and many other examples are given, to show that change can happen. And the authors highlight the need for local leadership and involvement in order for these organizations to succeed. Over the years, the West has poured tons of aid money into Africa and other regions, often without seeing much success in their efforts. The authors believe this is because we are focused on a top down approach. We look at the problem from a distance and decide what the best solution would be, usually without consulting with the people who actually live there. Local leadership is key, because they will be the ones who have the best understanding of the problems, as well as the culture and traditions in the area, and how best to address them.
Throughout the book, they have an overarching solution that they believe will help solve all of the major problems I mentioned above: educate women. Often, when a family is poor or simply because of cultural traditions passed on for generations, families will educate their sons instead of their daughters. This leaves half the population ignorant and illiterate. It also bars half the population from entering the workforce or participating in the political process. The authors explain that empowering women is not only a humanitarian issue, but also an economic one. A number of studies are described that show where women are repressed economies tend to be stagnant, and that giving women greater financial independence also helps to alleviate poverty because they tend to invest in the family – buying healthy food, paying for their kids to go to school, and starting small businesses. In contrast, men more often invest in themselves – buying alcohol and other forms of instant gratification. Investing in the education of women has the potential to revolutionize society, and rid the world of so many of these chronic problems that are plaguing us.
I could go on and on about this book because I think it’s amazing, but I’ll stop here. I recommend it to everyone – women and men – because it’s not just about “women’s issues.” It’s a humanitarian issue that affects all of us.