Women Hold Both Sky and Solutions

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Sheryl WuDunn & Nicholas Kristof

320 pages, Knopf, 2009

Buy the book »

Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof’s book Half the Sky is an absorbing narrative of stories that are rarely heard: a New Jersey teenager is raising awareness about the status of girls in poor countries, an Afghan schoolteacher is leading a learning insurgency, and a former first lady of Somalia’s hospital is saving the lives of mothers in Somaliland. These and other vignettes bring to life the struggles and courage of unforgettable women who are, as the book’s subtitle suggests, turning oppression into opportunity.

Half the Sky begins by outlining the most egregious ways in which human rights are violated: trafficking and slavery, prostitution, rape and honor killings, and maternal mortality. The authors do not flinch from describing experiences that are horrifying testimony to the deeply rooted gender inequality that persists around the globe.

The book also explores the reasons for such discriminatory practices—including attitudes toward religion and traditional cultural beliefs—effectively stoking the reader’s growing sense of moral outrage. We learn, for example, that the world’s leaders are effectively ignoring the 500,000 women who die each year either giving birth or trying to cope with unplanned births, by relegating maternal mortality to a “women’s issue.”

After convincing the reader that this state of affairs can no longer be tolerated, the authors use the latter part of the book to share what they believe are some of the most promising strategies for changing this brutal reality. Their top three choices: investing in education, microfinance strategies, and the effective exercise of political will. They also argue passionately for greater investment at the grassroots level, a cause the Global Fund for Women has championed for more than 20 years.

The fervor of the book can be attributed to the authors’ self-confessed status as recent converts to the cause of women’s rights. This is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Although it offers valuable insights into the lives of individual women, the book may frustrate readers seeking deeper analyses of the complex factors that contribute to extreme gender discrimination.

To paraphrase Karl Marx, women struggle for their rights not in circumstances of their own choosing but within a broader historic, socioeconomic, and political context. In describing the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as “the world capital of rape,” for example, the book rightly calls attention to the terrible violence faced by women there. Yet the reader is not led to reflect on the fact that the experience of Congolese women is inextricably linked to the larger struggles of the DRC. The culture of violence in the Congo has roots that include vicious colonial occupation, the fallout of the Rwandan genocide, ongoing mineral extraction by multinational corporations, and an arms race fueled by the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, who are among the largest suppliers of small arms to various factions. Finally, the DRC experience is not contrasted with other recent mass rape incidents, such as in the former Yugoslavia, which could have led a reader to reflect on how this phenomenon extends far beyond the world’s poorest countries.

Similarly, the chapter titled “Is Islam Misogynistic?” could have been more clearly linked to the previous chapter—“Family Planning and the ‘God Gulf.’” There, the authors do touch on the way in which evangelicals and right-wing Christian extremists contribute annually to the deaths of women by refusing access to contraception and insisting on “abstinence only” strategies. A chapter titled “Is Religion Misogynistic?” might have been more effective in exploring the multiple ways in which most of the world’s religious and cultural traditions have found “divine” reasons to justify and continue the systematic oppression of women. Instead, the chapter on Islam comes perilously close to reinforcing widely held negative stereotypes about Muslims.

The book misses the opportunity to make the critical point that the realization of women’s rights depends on the existence of secular civil space that is only possible after societies have achieved genuine separation of church and state. That separation was crucial for the gradual emancipation of women in the West, a struggle that has taken centuries. Women in the developing world are trying to achieve their rights compressed time frames—most of their societies gained independence from European colonizers barely 50 years ago.

What the book does effectively to make the foreign terrain of women’s rights accessible to an average American. Although they may not have intended to, the authors blow a fresh wind into the sails of the women’s movement right here in the United States, for much more needs to be done at home as well as overseas. Violence against women in the United States continues to be a leading public health menace, women and children make up 70 percent of the poor, and women still constitute a mere 14 percent of the U.S. Congress.

It is critical that the message we take away from this book is not simply horror at the epidemic of global gender violence and injustice. Half the Sky reminds us that women also hold solutions to our world’s greatest challenges. If Sakena Yacoobi and the girls of Afghanistan can risk their lives to overcome illiteracy, poverty, and violence, then we must be their allies by holding our own governments, corporations, and philanthropic sectors to their promises to realize women’s rights. That would make the sky that women hold up a little lighter and our collective futures much brighter.

Kavita Nandini Ramdas is president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. A lifelong advocate for women’s rights, she is also a member of the board of trustees of Princeton University and Mount Holyoke College, and a member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program Advisory Panel.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • Nancy Deyo's avatar

    BY Nancy Deyo

    ON November 28, 2009 04:58 PM

    Bravo, Kavita! I just finished reading this book today, and while it is an excellent primer for the somewhat uninitiated on the challenges facing women around the world, I felt frustrated that the author’s solutions seemed overly simplistic and didn’t address the complex historical, political and socioeconomic context within which we know them to exist. Fantastic review, again, and thank you for sharing the position of the Global Fund for Women with people who obviously care about women in developing nations world wide. As an aside, while I was delighted to see grantees of the Global Fund highlighted in this book, I think given the Global Fund’s leadership role in addressing women’s human rights and fostering advancement of the women’s movement overall, that you deserved a LOT more airtime in this book than you received.

  • BY Elaine Nonneman

    ON November 30, 2009 03:06 AM

    Thank you, Kavita!  I felt all your points were very well taken.  One message I noted in the book was a bias toward independent action on the ground and infusion of private funding to remedy the injustices that were presented, as opposed to efforts at government restructuring and advocacy for high (UN)-level policy initiatives and implementation.  That speaks to your observations about a failure to view the oppression of women in the whole cultural, economic and historical context of their nations and the world.  I totally applaud the models of courage and dedication to change the status of women whose stories were profiled in the book.  Hopefully, however, readers are moved to a deeper analysis of root causes of gender inequity and to steps they individually and collectively must take toward confronting and ending that paradigm.  Your comments on this book are exceedingly valuable, not only because of your position, but to enlighten many to the fact that the information presented in “Half the Sky” is not a revelation.

  • Lisa Denenmark's avatar

    BY Lisa Denenmark

    ON February 4, 2010 11:54 AM

    Thank you, Kavita Ramdas, for your review of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”  Please write a book.

    To add:

    Do a Google Books search for the words militarization, colonial, hegemony, nationalism, ethnocentrism, governmentality, subaltern, political economy, and collaboration and you’ll get nothing. Racism appears in the context of Jim Crow; imperialism, empire, and liberation are not in any analytical context or framework for deep thought or discussion. This is disturbing.

    Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are very good storytellers, people who light some of the darkness but without dissecting the reasons for the darkness visible. I was hoping for that third space born of critical thought, some applied research, or nonethnocentric discourse about state-sanctioned violence playing out on the bodies of women, plurality as precondition to freedom, secular wars about resources, Othering.

    At the very least I needed a definition of the contested term “gender” that transcends the binary and engenders my trust in the authors as narrators. Were we on the same page? Speaking of things trans…if the authors just hopped aboard the women’s rights’ train, dare I ask how long before they get to queer, gay, lesbian, or homosexual—also not mentioned in their book?

    I am irritated by the contriteness of the authors confessing their un-PCness in the chapter on misogyny and Islam, the too many “plump” and “round faced” women, some with “hair peeking out” or “light chocolate skin.”

    I wanted to like this book, really, and appreciated the authors’ ardor, profiles in courage, and grassroots call to action. But then Kristof and WuDunn go and quote ex-World Bank economist Lawrence Summers about the “highest-return investment available in the developing world” being “investment in girls’ education”—perhaps just as long as it isn’t in math and science where they have less “innate ability” than men—also said by Lawrence Summers (ex-Harvard president in 2005).

    With that, any reliable narration went out the window, and in came a gust of questions not about any malintent on the authors’ part, but about their capacity, choices, paucity of intellectual rigor, and even fact-checking.

    To paraphrase Marx (don’t bother Googling him) and Kavita’s paraphrasing Marx, the book needs to engage in some “criticism that must not be afraid of its own conclusion.” Absent is not only an understanding or discussion of the political terrain of the times (and/or The New York Times’), but also of the material basis for that terrain—not of women’s or men of the Global South’s, or disenfranchised people’s making.

    Kavita has said that there is no such thing as “women’s issues” in a world where women make up 51% of the population. Concomitantly, there is no such thing as half a sky, though the 20% that the U.S. pollutes affects everyone but mostly plays out on the bodies of women and girls in the Global South.

    “Half the Sky” means well. And the world, especially women, needs this book’s access, the authors’ power, their awards, their heart and goodwill—and yes, the agency and creativity seemingly denied many of the women profiled in the book ad tedium.

    And so, I beseech the authors: There is an abundance of information, studies, and stakeholder research out there to be used, cited, etc. Please go get the help you need and become politically and issue savvy fast! Do your homework, lose some of those fetishizing adjectives, and collaborate with the many willing and knowledgeable organizations and sources worldwide—especially the Global Fund for Women—that have been assiduously studying, and working with and for women’s rights for years.

    I applaud this book with one hand. The sound it makes is plaintive.

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.