Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Sheryl WuDunn & Nicholas Kristof

320 pages, Knopf, 2009

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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 in compressed time frames—most of their societies gained independence from European colonizers barely 50 years ago.

What the book does effectively is 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.