Book Review and Summary: "Half the Sky"

Updated on May 12, 2016

This is 1/2 review, 1/2 half summary. The book was so packed full of information that I wasn't able to say everything I thought, so I strongly recommend that you go out and read the book for yourself.

Photo of the authors taken from the New York Times book review.
Photo of the authors taken from the New York Times book review. | Source

Heart-Wrenching Problems, Well-Researched Solutions

In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nobel Prize-winning authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn report on a story seldom told: The difficulties faced by women in the developing world. Kristof and WuDunn set out to investigate the most brutal situations in which women unwittingly find themselves, focusing on the three that they found most oppressive: trafficking, gender based violence, and female mortality. They relate the causes of these horrors to women’s subjugated positions in their countries, and list lack of education as both a cause and effect of these problems. All of the stories are told through the testimony of a few women who give voice to a larger population. After an in-depth, well-researched, and heart-wrenching analysis of the problems presented in the first chapters, the authors offer solutions, which left me feeling optimistic and motivated, albeit with a more sober idea of reality.

Human Trafficking of Women

The book hooked me from the beginning with the story of Rath, then a Cambodian teenager who was sold to traffickers. Eventually, Rath was helped to escape and started a successful business with the support of American Assistance for Cambodia, an aid organization that assists women coming out of this type of slavery with microloans. Rath’s story both details her traumatic experience and testifies to her incredible ability to turn her life around and better her situation and self-esteem.

The authors elaborate on the story, presenting it as an example of numerous others. They cite calculations by nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who states that “more than 100 million women are missing” (xv) from countries in which women’s status is starkly unequal to men’s. These missing girls are victims of gender discrimination, and have vanished due to lack of healthcare, female infanticide, malnutrition, and a general disregard for women. This attention-grabbing introduction is followed up with an examination of these global issues in our collective conscience.

While women’s status globally used to be seen as an unfortunate and unchangeable reality, new developments in how women’s issues are dealt with have become priorities for important institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Microfinance, the practice of loaning small amounts of money, has become a new way to support development, and girls’ education is cited by the World Bank and IMF as one of the highest return investments possible, resulting in a delay in marriage and pregnancy, fewer births, economic empowerment for women, and a strengthened cycle of feeding this empowerment back into the family, resulting in stronger communities.

Even the Pentagon is paying attention: “When the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold a discussion for girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you know that gender is a serious topic on the international affairs agenda” (xxi).

The authors trace the causes for the prevalence of trafficking to gender discrimination and poverty. Kristoff cites an experience with a border guard between India and Nepal who was watching for pirated DVDs and counterfeit, but who didn’t mind the slaves being brought into India, as long as they were illiterate peasants. The social hierarchy is thus presented as an important component of the institution of trafficking.

Kristoff and WuDunn call for politicians’ involvement in what they call the “modern abolitionist movement”, and for the European Union to make trafficking an issue in negotiating accession. Overall, they see education and empowerment of women as keys to reducing trafficking.

An Ethical Argument

The issue of maternal mortality is not as explicitly brutal as other issues discussed, but it is one covered extensively in the book due to the fact that it results from a passive acceptance of maternal death. Maternal morbidity, particularly in connection to obstetric fistulas, is another issue that is easy to prevent and repair, yet is given little attention.

The story of Prudence, a sub-Saharan African woman who died during labor, is presented as an example of four major factors contributing to the deaths of many mothers. These include African women’s tendency to have anthropoid pelvises, leading to more cases of obstructed labor, a lack of schooling, lack of rural healthcare systems, and a general disregard for women. Kristof and WuDunn bring the point closer to home when they state that during World War 1, more American women died in childbirth than men died in war. American maternal mortality rates plummeted after suffrage and increased education, facts that attest to the importance of literacy in empowering the masses.

The couple states that no international constituency exists for maternal health as does for AIDs or malaria. Because saving women isn't cheap, an ethical argument must be made, rather than an economic one.

Gender Inequality and Global Problems

The final chapters deal with issues such as how domestic politics of the United States affect the developing world, the role of Islam in the gender debate, microfinance, and education as paths to equality, and actions that the readers can take to combat the wrongs detailed in the book. The final conclusion is that gender inequality is a major cause of global problems, and that divides between democrats and republicans in the U.S., as well as between religious and secular organizations slow any progress that could be made. The authors believe that in order to change the lives of women in developing countries, superficial differences must be set aside so that people of all political parties and spiritual callings can come together to solve problems that everyone finds unjust.

The final chapter offers suggestions on what readers can do to combat gender discrimination, circling back to the parallel with the abolitionist movement. The authors argue that even though England suffered economically from the decision to end slavery in 1807, they set a moral example. Not only is it an ethical and human rights issue, but it offers another dimension with which to tackle important issues such as population growth, and terrorism. The authors are careful to stress that helping women by no means implies that men are ignored, something that I think is necessary to include in a book that focuses on women. Despite the huge body of evidence backing up their claims, many critics surely jumped at the idea of “reverse sexism”. In order to dispel myths about sexism, the book points out that though men are routinely cruel to women, it is often women who manage brothels, cut their daughters’ genitals, and value their sons before their daughters. I believe that this mentality helped to present the argument in a believable way. It also takes the reader away from a mindset of thinking of women as purely victims.

My Final Thoughts

The tactic of presenting the issues through the stories of individuals with names and photos was very effective in relating the reader to the women and made the book much more readable than simply listing facts would have. The women whose stories were told drew me in and stirred up my emotions in a way that I do not think would have been possible without the personal aspect. The real-life examples also made the issues easier to understand.

The authors tackle the causes of the issues and offer specific solutions accompanied by a long list of aid organizations that the reader can donate money to or volunteer time with. Ultimately, the presentation and explanation of these important human rights issues was both heart-breaking and inspiring, and I was left with a much deeper understanding of economic development than I had when I started reading. I am also very thankful to the authors for including a database ways to join the cause.

Finally, as if all of the reasons to help women and suggestions for doing so aren’t enough, the authors state that joining " . . . any movement or humanitarian initiative can provide a sense of purpose that boosts one’s happiness quotient” (250). Alright, I’m convinced.

About the Authors

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are a married couple who co-authored the book. Kristof writes a column for the New York Times and WuDunn is an investment advisor. They have won Pulitzer prizes for their coverage of China, making WuDunn the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer. Kristof won a second Pulitzer for his commentary on human rights.

Source and Disclaimer

All quotations and factual information included were taken from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. All photos, unless otherwise noted, were downloaded as freebies from the Half the Sky website.

Opinions expressed in the book do not necessarily reflect my opinions. The object of this review is to express my opinions on the book and its treatment of the issues at hand.

Questions & Answers

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      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        5 years ago from Miami, US

        @Green Art- I agree, this book is incredibly overwhelming. There were times when I had to put it down. Luckily for the few women that the authors spoke of, there was a way out of the horrible situation. And after all the tragedy, the book ends on a hopeful note. Thank you for reading my review and for commenting.

        @Claudia Tello- It is so sad to learn about, but you are absolutely right, there is hope in changing. The sticky thing is changing people's attitudes without imposing our Western culture on them, but I believe it is possible. I was astounded to learn about how important just getting a 6th grade education is for women in poor areas. I'm glad you liked the book, keep spreading the word! And thank you for commenting here :)

      • Claudia Tello profile image

        Claudia Tello 

        6 years ago from Mexico

        I have just finished reading this book. It really is an eye opener that informs the world of the terrible cultural oppression, and hence justified psychological and physical violence, women endure in countries such as India, Pakistan, and the majority of Africa and Southeast Asia. I wasn´t aware such terrible discrimination and abuse was taking place even today and it is really sad to learn about them. Nevertheless, the authors also write about success stories of women who were helped by international efforts and who´s life dramatically changed, luckily for the better. It´s great to know that there are so many people willing to help women who were unfortunate enough to be born in such oppressive societies. The other positive thing is that something can be done about it if all of us help if only one woman, turning her oppression into opportunity, empowering her to change her destiny.

      • Green Art profile image

        Green Art 

        6 years ago

        After reading this heart felt review of "Half the Sky" I will read it for sure. The tragic ways women are treated throughout the world seem so overwhelming at times, but making people aware of it is the first step toward change. Voted UP and useful!

      • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Das 

        6 years ago from Miami, US

        Thank you A K Turner, I'm glad you've enjoyed it. It was an excellent read.

      • A K Turner profile image

        Joseph A K Turner 

        6 years ago from West Yorkshire

        great review!

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