Holding up Half the Sky: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write about women

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn identify women's problems globally and identify solutions in this impressive work.

Groundbreaking journalists and spouses Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have done it again.

The first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize, they have turned their considerable reporting and storytelling talents and their moral compass to the oppression faced by women across the globe, particularly in the developing world.

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery,” the authors write in the book’s introduction. “In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism.  We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide is a call to action that combines an unblinking documentation of the abuses women suffer globally and a clear description of actions people can and are taking to change, if not transform, those situations.

Kristof and WuDunn break the book into three sections, each of which focuses on a specific type of oppression women endure: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality.   Each part of the book contains stories of individuals who have experienced these abuses, a number of whom have taken actions to change their situations.  The authors also include examples of Westerners who have learned about these women’s plights and done something about it.

Half the Sky is a difficult read at many points, not because the writing style is so elevated, but because the content is so grim.  Whether reading about women suffering fistulas and leaking bodily waste due to poor or nonexistent maternal care or about young women trafficked and prostituted or wives being beaten by their husbands, the book is not for the proverbial faint of heart and is probably best not read right before going to sleep.

At the same time, the work does more than surface an unending series of depressing stories.  Kristof and WuDunn provide examples of women who manage, through individual and collective action, to fight back, to survive and to work to make their circumstances different.  One of the more vivid examples came in a village in Pakistan.

A group of women who had been terrorized by a local thug and his gang of henchmen gained inspiration from the resistance of one woman, descended on the bully in court and murdered him!  For a time, the woman who had initially stood up to the bully was deemed to be the ringleader and jailed for a short while, but the judge ultimately sided with her after learning about the reign of terror the bully had exacted.

This section is noteworthy both because of the women’s action and because it illustrates another of the book’s distinctive features-the authors’ willingness to confront thorny issues.  While couching their writing with introductory disclaimers of political incorrectness, Kristof and WuDunn speak out against genital mutilation, point out that abuses of women in the Islamic world is particularly pervasive and say that women in Botswana work much harder than the men of that country.   They also explain that bringing television to rural India exposed the people to different ideas and led to a reduction both in women’s mistreatment and in women’s acceptance of it.

Kristof and WuDunn’s candor is also accompanied by a call not to get too hung up on ideological divisions between right and left, conservative and political.

In short, Half the Sky is a call to action for people in the developing world and people in the United States and other Western nations that have resources, inlcuding their time, energy and bodies in addition to their money, to bring to bear on this global crisis.

This call combines practical and moral elements.  The authors note that many of the world’s most pressing issues like poverty, climate change and terrorism can be alleviated, and at a comparatively low cost, through focusing on women’s uplift.  “We would never argue that the empowerment of women is a silver bullet, but it is an approach that offers a range of rewards that go far beyond simple justice,” they write in the book’s conclusion.  Half the Sky also has a list of actions one can take right away to do something about the issue and a list of organizations in the appendix.

Half the Sky does have a few too many examples where Nick heroically intervenes or points out the flawed thinking of border officials.  But this is a minor blemish in a prophetic work that points out a glaring global challenge and urges us to become engaged in the solution.

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