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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

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From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.

With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.

They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon. A Zimbabwean mother of five, counseled to return to school, earned her doctorate and became an expert on AIDS.

Through these stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part. Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population. Countries such as China have prospered precisely because they emancipated women and brought them into the formal economy. Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.

Deeply felt, pragmatic, and inspirational, Half the Sky is essential reading for every global citizen.

294 pages, Hardcover

First published September 8, 2008

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About the author

Nicholas D. Kristof

24 books930 followers
Nicholas Donabet Kristof is an American journalist, author, op-ed columnist, and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. He has written an op-ed column for The New York Times since November 2001 and is widely known for bringing to light human rights abuses in Asia and Africa, such as human trafficking and the Darfur conflict. He has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to 150 countries and all 50 states. According to his blog, during his travels he has had "unpleasant experiences with malaria, wars, an Indonesian mob carrying heads on pikes, and an African airplane crash".

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,319 reviews
Profile Image for Galen Johnson.
402 reviews4 followers
February 14, 2013
I heard a number of people rave about this book, so I was excited to read it. By the time I was finished with the first two chapters, I was left with an uncomfortable, almost icky, feeling. Not from the subject matter (which is disturbing but a topic I have read about extensively), but from the tone of the writing. I kept reading, thinking it would get better. But soon the book and the uncomfortable feeling became worse, and I started to be able to name the source of the ickiness and my overall discomfort with the book: Ethnocentrism. Sexism. Paternalism. Lack of cohesion to the arguments. So, most of my review will focus on that. BUT, I do have to say that the subject matter-- the horrors of slavery and rape and the sexism and the poverty that so many people around the world suffer-- is something that should not be ignored. I would rather have people read this book than have no information on these topics at all. However, I wish that people would either get their information from another source to begin with or hope that people quickly move on to reading better, more open and thoughtful sources on the topics.

One thing that rubbed me the wrong way about the writing (and the internet now tells me that this is a common complaint about Kristof’s writing) is the “othering” of the victims, the painfully western perspective on all things and the paternalistic tone. The victims are rarely portrayed as full human beings, but objects whose story begins and ends with their suffering (or, perhaps, extends long enough to serve as a success story for the authors or other saviors.) Rape victims are named, pictures of women in operating rooms are shown, and the privacy of these victimized women is not respected in the way that would be demanded for western subjects. Most women in the book are referred to by their first name, most men (especially western men) are referred to by their last names. Yes, there are exceptions, but look at the chapter section on the charity work of Overlake High School-- a male Newsweek writer and the male school principal are referred to by their last names or full names, a female student by her first name (even though the full names of all three were given when introduced). This might seem like a small thing, but it is an easy-to-quantify example of the paternalistic tone the authors take with the women they write about.

The authors explicitly address that their writing will be anecdote-driven in a section explaining sociological research that demonstrated greater action taken by people hearing personal stories than hearing statistics about an issue. I will ignore the fact that this infantilizes readers (ha, we just need to emotionally manipulate you here rather than actually educate you!), and say that it is actually a good thing they mostly avoid statistics because they seem incapable of writing about numbers well. In one chapter, they wrote, “One experiment....found that after three years family planning programs reduced the average number of births to 5.1 in the target area, compared to 6.7 in the control area.” Average births per WHAT? Per family? Per acre? Per woman? The reference is given in the notes, but it wouldn’t have taken that much extra writing (or editing) to just make the sentence helpful to begin with.

The lack of consistency (if not outright contradictions) regarding real, workable solutions to the multitude of problems presented in the book was especially frustrating. There is constant proselytizing for more education for females, but then in a chapter on improving rural health care the authors write, “One sensible response [to the lack of doctors in rural areas] is to start training programs in Africa that produce many more health care professionals, but in two- or three-year programs that don’t grant MDs that allow the graduates to find jobs abroad.” So, besides making extremely broad generalizations about an entire diverse continent, the authors think Africans should be educated enough to help themselves but not enough to participate in the opportunities of the world? We westerners should impose limits on how high you Africans can rise, but we will also look down on you for thinking your women are less deserving of opportunity than your men?

The authors seem to be writing for a U.S. audience (many of the charity examples are from the U.S., and comments are made about the need for Americans to see more of the world), but there is no discussion of why the U.S., a developed, non-Muslim, country with equal voting rights, pretty good health care, and education for women, still has non-negligible problems with human trafficking, violence against women, and with disparate quality in maternal health. We have outlawed brothels (in most states), and yet there is still a problem with women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will. Human trafficking in the U.S. is a problem, even if the majority of the victims come from other countries. Why don’t the authors discuss this when proposing better education, harsher laws against brothel owners, and women speaking up as solutions? Clearly, there is much more depth to all of these issues than the authors are willing or able to go into.

I could go on and on-- multiple times in each chapter, I have “?!?!?!” in the margins beside unclear statistics, sexist statements, and contradictory ideas. The bottom line is that this is an important book topic, but it has been mangled in the execution. While there are some concrete suggestions for how to move forward on these issues, there are also statements such as, "If you're a parent, take your kids not just to London but also to India or Africa-or to the other side of the tracks in your own hometown." Yes, because everyone interested in helping others has the disposable income to travel the world and lives on the "right" side of the tracks. I do hope that more people learn about these human rights issues, and I hope that readers who have been inspired by this book also read the criticism by writers like Teju Cole, Elliott Prasse-Freeman, Sally Scholz, and Laura Agustin.

[Disclaimer: I have not finished the book yet, so if the last chapter has a big twist like in “Gone Girl” and all the previous chapters need to be re-interpreted, then obviously I have missed out.] [Okay, I finished, and if anything I think even less of the book.]
Profile Image for Meredith Holley.
Author 2 books2,274 followers
January 16, 2011
I think what I want the most this year is for everyone I know to read this book. I don’t really know what to say about it, except that it is exactly what it should be. It’s hard to even think for too long about how purposeful and smart Kristof and WuDunn were in structuring and presenting the information they included here because it obviously represents a lifetime of research and investigation, but it comes off as though they’re telling campfire stories. I don’t mean to be disrespectful in describing it that way, and they certainly weren’t. I just mean that all of the heroes in this book are very vivid to me, and I want to meet them all and do anything I can for them. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I care about human rights for women and girls more than anything else in the entire world. If nothing else, this book is a wonderful resource for information and direction on these issues, but it really is both a storybook and a guidebook.

The premise of the book is that the great human rights battle of the twenty-first century will be to make women equal around the world. The main problems Kristof and WuDunn focus on are child sex trafficking, lack of education for girls, fistulas, and maternal mortality. Ultimately, they say (**spoiler alert**) that the best ways to fight these injustices are through education, micro-finance loans to women entrepreneurs, and, surprisingly enough, getting TVs into rural areas of developing countries.

They note that typically the mistake activists make, when trying to motivate people, is overwhelming them with statistics by trying to present the big picture of how the cause affects the world. Kristof talks a little bit about this in his article Advice for Saving the World. There is some psychological study where the testers took two groups of people and told one group they could help a thousands of people by giving a dollar and told the other group they could help one person by giving a dollar and described that person’s situation. The test subjects were much more likely to help the one person than the huge number of people. This makes sense to me, because people want to feel successful in helping, not like they’re throwing a bunch of money and effort into something that is too big to be solved. WuDunn and Kristof managed this by discussing the problems in a very specific format. For each issue, they would present the story of one or two women who in some way exemplify the problem, then they would give background information on the problem historically and brief statistics, and then they would tell the story of someone who is successfully fighting the problem. Even though I know they were in some ways spoon-feeding me by being so purposeful, this was a very inspirational way to write the book. They weren’t patronizing, and in many ways it is such a substantial topic that I think I need to be spoon-fed.

All of my stories end up being about Ukraine, probably because the others tend to be boring and depressing. It is difficult to know what to write about Half the Sky, because I loved it so much, but it made me think of this little moment with my ninth-grade students. I used to make my classes write stories together to practice vocabulary, so on Valentine’s Day, I made them write a love story. I gave them a boy character and a girl character and asked them to describe them. They said the girl was tall and strong, had big muscles, short hair, and was very brave. The boy had beautiful hair, was graceful, small, and kind. I was impressed by them going against the usual gender stereotypes, which I found to be extreme in Ukraine. But, then, I thought, they were my favorite class, and always had a good political point or poignant question for me.

At some point, though, one of the students exclaimed, “No! No! Miss Holley! We are wrong. These words, ‘boy’ and ‘girl!’ We are wrong about these words! You must move them!” Then, there was a lot of yelling in Russian, and I laughed pretty hysterically for about 10 minutes at the mistake they had made. Obviously, I refused to switch the words, and we had a nice little lesson about how girls can be very brave and boys can be graceful. If the kids hadn’t been drilled from birth to stay in their seats come hell or high water, I’m sure one of them would have forcibly changed the words.

I guess I’m not telling this story to point out how silly it is that some kids think girls have to have long hair. Teaching moments are important; but, also, I think that really important humanitarian issues can be clouded by the idea that feminism exists because a girl got her feelings hurt. I am not married to the word ‘feminism,’ though I do love it. I think, though, there is almost no real way to discuss this topic using a phrase that doesn’t typically get disregarded as trivial. This book is not about girls opening their own car doors or boys having cooties. This book is about slavery and genocide, perpetrated against the female half of the population, which is globally considered subhuman.

The most difficult part for me about this entire topic is when women themselves don’t want to improve their own lives or the lives of other women. There is a small mention in this book about families who have very little food and allow the men to eat first. The boys in the family will be healthy and strong, and the girls will eventually be taken to hospitals, wasted and malnourished (if they are lucky). The mother of the house herself will eat, and the family gets fat on the starvation of the girls. This is not only a problem in developing nations. Women perpetuating the dehumanizing of other women occurs all over, from West Africa to West Hollywood. It bothers me when I meet men who really hate women or women who really hate men, but then I think the person probably had some kind of traumatic experience with the opposite gender and is over-stereotyping. It seems really disturbing and unnatural to me, however, when women hate other women. I don’t want that to exist.

Now to go uncomfortably personal on y’all. I finished this book last month, a couple of days after my mom died from an eight-year-long, horrible illness. By the end, her illness was sadder than her death, so I am not saying this for sympathy. My mom’s life just seems somehow connected to the topic of this book. I guess, with any discussion of women, our mothers’ lives, our own lives, and our relationships with our mothers are very present. My mother was a very unhappy person. She believed that men should provide and women should be fulfilled by motherhood. I don’t know if she was unhappy because life didn’t live up to that standard, or because she believed women should be unhappy, or maybe even because the universe conspired against her. My mom and I were very different and didn’t communicate very well. There are many things I don’t know about her. I do know, however, that there was more to her than the unhappy woman I grew up with. I believe there is more to any woman who dehumanizes herself, or other women, than only the hopelessness and resignation they show to the world.

I also think it is possible to create a world that is nurturing to both men and women. I don’t even think it should be as difficult as it seems. There are many things to be discouraged about in the fight to give women human rights; but, there are also people who stand up to oppression, helping women around them and women internationally. I do not feel discouraged by my mother’s disappointments, but I decided to go to law school partly because of them. I hope that when I get out I’ll be able to advocate for women and girls and help the heroes Kristof and WuDunn talk about in Half the Sky. In the meantime, you should read this book and do your part, too – even if your part is only hugging your mom and reminding her, if she needs a reminder, that she’s a worthwhile human being.
Profile Image for Heather Montes Ireland.
60 reviews6 followers
April 28, 2011
Seeing the amount of praise given this book by progressives and conservatives alike, it seems like smug and self-righteous really sells. Or, perhaps it's that whole journalistic idea 'if it bleeds, it leads' that works to capture the reader's attention. Maybe, just maybe, Westerners really know that little about the world outside our borders and the fight for gender equality within and without those borders--and this book actually makes them care.

While as much as I wish that I could say I liked this book because it brings attention to the war against women the world over, the book is full of 'controlling images' of the poor that are politically useful in a Western context. It's a heavy-handed, exploitative look at the monolithic 'third world woman' (to use Mohanty) through the white/Western male gaze (oh, and the gaze of his WOC wife). Kristof clearly feels for the women he writes about, though it reeks of the 'racist love' that Frank Chin describes. But, the worst part is the way that he naturalizes the oppression of women without historicizing the ways that neoliberal capitalism and development, colonialism, and the political economy of Western imperialism have helped to create these conditions--and not just "out there", but for U.S. third world women, too.

The only reason that this does not get just 1 star is because a) the response that people have had to this book is worth noting--I take some heart in anything that makes people actually care that women are human, too and b) because he does highlight some of the atrocious statistics about women's inequality globally that the (particularly, American) public just never hears.

At best, this book brings light to women's issues and hopefully causes some attention to women's needs in "development," and exposes the misogyny of our social world, which I believe can create change. At worst, it exploits and re-victimizes women by condoning the ideologies of development that often directly result in women's oppression itself. Acknowledging that, it doesn't leave me with a very good taste in my mouth. Instead, I recommend Firth Murray's From Outrage to Courage: The Unjust and Unhealthy Situation of Women in Poor Countries and What They Are Doing About It - this is a well-written, nuanced understanding of global women's health issues and what's being done by women's rights activists to make woman-centered change.
Profile Image for Elisabeth.
36 reviews1 follower
April 1, 2010
I agree with other comments about this book. Half the Sky is not meant for those who seek scholarly material about the current state of women throughout the world. The authors use heart wrenching stories to describe the reality millions of women experience each day.

The reason I gave this book two stars is not because I disagree with the premise of the book or the authors' push to radically alter the trajectory of global rights -- sign me up! What frustrated me, and in the end left a sour taste in mouth, was Chapter 12: The Axis of Equality. In this chapter the authors discuss sweatshop labor in a positive light because "Labor-intensive factories [which prefer "young women, perhaps because they are more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble":] would create large numbers of jobs for women, and they would bring more capital -- and gender equality." Really?!? While I get what Kristof and WuDunn are getting at, this chapter does little more than support perpetuating engendered capitalistic notions of economic development and exploitation as a means of development.
Profile Image for Laurel.
404 reviews193 followers
January 1, 2010
I found this book to be quite powerful. Pulitzer prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn vividly describe the brave plights of women in developing nations in ways that were incredibly eye opening to me. While I was aware of the brutal conditions (lack of education, demoralization, rape, beatings, sex trafficking, mutilations, and murder) of women and young girls going on in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, I admit I did not fully realize the immense enormity of it. Nor did I fully realize how much all these atrocities can so intricately tie in with such things as the global economy and modern terrorism.

Despite the authors notation that statistics are less effective in inspiring people to take action (personal stories work better), here are some statistics mentioned that I personally found hard to wrap my mind around:

"More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century. "

"The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day... life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal."

While these statistics are disturbing and sobering, to say the least, the book itself is quite empowering and hopeful. The authors introduce us to individual women around the world battling these horrible conditions, and their strength and spirit shine through the pages. It's impossible not to be moved.

The book is also not without interesting suggestions and ideas to help bring about change. And clearly something must be done. As the authors note, "in the 19th century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that, in this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world."

This book is a hugely important, shocking, eye opening and thought provoking read. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Allison.
85 reviews
January 10, 2010
"In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. 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."

When I first heard Nicholas Kristof make this argument at the PIH symposium in October, I was taken aback. Not because I didn't believe and have a firm understanding that gender discrimination worldwide is shockingly brutal and horrifying. But, at the time, it seemed like a self-serving statement. "Of course you feel that way," I thought. "You have a book on women's issues to sell. Is it really possible that gender equality is the central issue of the twenty-first century? More so than terrorism, poverty, hunger, global warming....?" Then I read this book and I now believe that he is right. In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn compellingly argue that empowering women is not just a moral imperative, but a cause that has great potential to make a significant contribution to reducing other major issues like terrorism, poverty, hunger, and global warming.

This is a bold book that dares to take a stand, political correctness be damned. The discipline and work of human development in the developing world is complicated. Well-meaning people wish to empower women without being culturally intolerant. But how can we tolerate violence like the sex slave trade and genital cutting? Kristof and WuDunn believe that local, grassroots efforts, supported by Western money and human-power, are the real agents of change. Cultural change must come from within, but it needs support. They are also not afraid to point out that a large proportion of countries that systemically discriminate against women are perpredominantly Muslim. They make this claim and then explore why. They are not afraid to point out that some of the most vilified leaders in history have been the most effective at empowering women and reaping the rewards (the title of the book comes from a quote by Mao himself). They know that empowering and emancipating women is a staggeringly worth cause on its own. Yet they know that it will take more than a moral imperative to rally the world behind this issue, and I can only hope that their arguments take hold and begin to inspire the world to care about its women.
Profile Image for Paige.
563 reviews127 followers
November 9, 2012
I finished this book a couple days ago and I don't want to spend a whole lot of time reviewing it. Maybe you can tell by the two stars, but unfortunately it didn't really live up to my hopes for it.

In some ways it pains me to give this book such a "bad" rating, because human rights abuses the world over are such a huge issue, and those disproportionately affecting women are often particularly heinous. This book aims to shed light on these issues and offers some solutions for "solving" the problems. I want to say that I felt the authors had their hearts in the right place, but I'm not even sure I can say that truthfully. They probably do and I feel somewhat guilty about suspecting their motives--but I suppose my worldview is just different from theirs, and some of the things they say just strike me as odd, insensitive, or incorrect.

Although there are a lot of decent information&statistics and the stories are real, I made dozens of sarcastic notes where I had issues with what the authors were saying. I knew this book & I were off to a bad start in the introduction when the author wrote "We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world." As if gender equality has been achieved in the "developed" world, as if America is some shining example of gender equality (America, where three women a day are murdered in the US by their boyfriends or husbands and 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetime). I don't for one second contest the notion that being a woman in the Congo or Pakistan has its own set of horrific difficulties. It absolutely does. I shook my head when I read that sentence because it seemed they imply some kind of weird moral superiority over the "developing world" while also discounting all the rapes and murders that happen in the "developed" world as if those aren't moral challenges too.

This kind of attitude is subtly pervasive throughout the book. It's really hard to put my finger on, but here are two others that I found while perusing reviews of this book have noticed something similar. Very near the end of book, the authors talk about this girl who was "the only white person in the room" telling a graduating class of young women in the Bronx that, despite any challenges THEY'VE face in their life, they're ~~~omg sooo lucky!!!~~~ Yuck. :( I guess she would feel comfortable telling those women who got raped and disfigured in the Congo that they're "lucky because they're not dead." We should be living in a world where every person has the right to and expectation of an education, respect, and freedom. I know that's not reality but I would much rather promote the ideals of that world than go around telling complete strangers, "You're lucky because some people have it worse!!"

Some other quick issues I had with this book:
- It almost seems to fetishize the rapes of these women. Almost every single story dealing with rape starts with how young, beautiful, and slender these girls are/were. "She's 14 and wears sexy clothes," "she's shy and beautiful," "she has a pretty face and a slender body." Okay and I care WHY? You get the feeling that if an overweight, unattractive 36 year old got raped, they wouldn't give a shit. A rape is a rape whether the victim fits the author's idea of pretty or not.
- They say that imperialist countries (like the US for instance) aren't responsible for creating the problems in these countries but should be responsible for fixing them becuase we have the money to. Yet they detail how throwing money at the problem doesn't really work, especially when it comes from outside sources. And further, I think quite a few of these problems ARE affected directly by globalization, neoliberal capitalism, military invasions, etc. In other words, the poverty of so many African nations has been created in part by imperialist policies of powerful nations. The World Bank plays a part in destroying countries' economies, but the authors quote them (and Goldman Sachs too, loool) like they're ~oh-so-great~ ~oh-so-helpful~ ~~saviours~~ of these countries. Not having it...
- They talk about these women as if the most important thing they could possibly do is to earn money, as if contributing to their GNP is more important than their happiness or safety. I quote, "China has enjoyed a virtuous circle in which, once girls had economic value, parents invested more in them and gave them greater autonomy" (chapter 12). Why is that virtuous? It's just another way of valuing women, not as human beings with actual lives and feelings and ideas, but as something that they can ~do for you~ Oh yes, so virtuous to only invest in those children who happen to be female after they've struggled against substantial odds to prove that, in reality, they actually function much the same as the male portion of humanity.
- Relatedly, they cheerlead for sweatshops because women can work in them. They say that this is ~much more preferable~ to working in fields, where they get paid less than men. But wait--earlier in the book, they quoted a Chinese factory manager as saying "[Women] are obedient and work harder than men. And we can pay them less." So I'm not really seeing the advantage to women. They advocate opening sweatshops across Africa. Great! Let's work women harder!! And pay them less for it!! Yeeeehaw. I'm sorry but is it ridiculous to expect people to be valued for something BESIDES how much money they can put in your pocket--money, which happens to be a pretty much fictional construct in any case?

So this turned into kind of a long rant. Those are just my thoughts upon finishing it and being frustrated with a lot of what I read. I don't think it's totally worthless--I did take a lot of notes on the sections of the book that are informative. The other two reviews I linked to seem to take a more mellow, fair approach than I did in this review. But as I stated when I started my review--I really didn't want to spend a lot of time on this... :P
Profile Image for Caroline.
506 reviews586 followers
May 20, 2015
Okay….so this is one of the top five book I have ever read in my life. Some books change you – and this is one of those books.

For a while now I have realised that my favourite writers are journalists. They really know how to make the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar. Never more so than with this book. The subjects covered are devastating – basically female abuse in all its forms….infanticide, neglect, lack of education, abduction , sex slavery, rape, genital mutilation, honour killings and maternal deaths. Yet, in spite of this the book is full of hope and inspiration too. It is full of the stories of fantastically courageous women who rise above impossible circumstances and go on to lead fulfilling lives – often working within the field of abuse that they themselves suffered – working to help other women in the same position. The book is also full of the stories of wonderful organisations, whose achievements are mind-boggling. Krislof and Wudunn, the Pulitzer Prize winning authors, have done a fantastic job of educating the reader about some extremely tough realities, whilst inspiring them at the same time. The information given is horrendous, and really daunting in its scope. These abuses are not happening just here and there, they are happening on a massive scale to thousands and thousands of women. It would have been easy just to feel overwhelmed, but instead the book is upbeat, and full of hope and positive messages, and suggestions for the way forward.
Towards the end of the book three major international undertakings are called for.
- An input of $10 billion over five years to help educate girls around the world.
- A $19 million contribution to pay for salt iodization in the countries that need it. (Pregnant women need iodine if their children are to realise their full intellectual potential).
- A $1.6 billion project to eradicate obstetric fistulas, whilst also working generally on maternal well-being.

Individuals can also help, and Krislof and Wudunn have particular respect for grassroot charities working with local people on the ground. Herewith a few of them.
*Shared Hope International (fights sex trafficking around the world)
*Tostan (one of the best organisations in fighting genital mutilation in Africa).
*CAMFED (Campaign for female education). This charity is given glowing reports in the book.
*Heal Africa (A hospital in the Congo, helping women with fistulas, and rape victims).
*SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association). A union for poor women in India.

What else can I say? I think this book is outstanding. It changed my understanding of the world.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,115 followers
December 31, 2017
This was actually a selection for my in-person book club a few years back, but I didn't read it at the time, knowing I would be away for that discussion. So when it came around as part of a postal book swap, I appreciated the chance to read it.

I feel when reading this that I am observing a phenomenon that I'm not sure the author(s) is(are) aware of. It feels like many of the lessons are that you can't just sweep in with money and expect to fix a problem. Issues that seem to be specific to women in a population are complex and far-reaching, and not as simple to fix as throwing money at the problem. There are many stories in this book where the authors discuss the mistakes that were made and the assumptions that were made, to the extent where I have to ask, did the people responsible for these programs even talk to the people living in the places they are trying to help first? Or is this part of the white savior complex that people can't see beyond?

I felt like the lesson was right there, but was a little out of reach for the author at times. Or sometimes he could see it in others but even while writing about it in himself could observe but not understand. Prostitution is not just prostitution, burkas are not just burkas, and so on.

He also seemed to think that the United States is an example of a country working well, but I've seen recent maternal death statistics that would beg to differ... another blind spot, or has so much deteriorated in the six years since this came out?

Still. I do agree that women are often underserved and there are positive things happening in some places that should be highlighted, replicated as different settings allowed, and funded. It really does seem like the most effective changes happen from within so I'm not sure I agree with some of the solutions posed, such as rich American college students spending a gap year helping to educate women in Africa. I do agree with items such as microloans. I also agree that legislation is not where true change occurs. This book is full of case studies of places where people have made attempts, and I believe there is a lot to be learned from these stories. But not everything that works in one place will automatically work in another. And sometimes something that seems obvious will fail.

And still, again. It is better to start the conversation than to not even try.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews609 followers
August 5, 2012
Everyone should read this book. The stories are `present` [not 10 years ago:]---
shocking--and inspiring>>> this book is not just about woman's issues, but `human` issues.
As the reader, it becomes clear how sexual equality is huge moral struggle `today-in-2010` around the globe....but many people are beginning to take inspired actions, [and we can too:].
Its a great book to give to our daughters after we read it.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,673 reviews489 followers
March 10, 2018
At one point in their book, Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn write, “There will be less [sex:] trafficking and less rape if more woman stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back”.
WuDunn and Kristof, a married couple, detail much of what are “woman’s” issues in the developing world. Their book focuses on sexual trafficking, micro finance, maternal health, as well as religion and education. The argument that they put forward is that developing countries need to emancipate women (and women need to free themselves) so that the country can develop. Kristof and WuDunn give a call to arms, not because of guilt, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

The thesis of the book is aptly illustrated though several stories of women who have succeeded, for the most part, despite the circumstances that they lived in. The first section of the book deals with sex trafficking and prostitution. Though the use of personal stories as well as statistics, they make a compelling case to illegalize prostitution. They examine and compare places were prostitution is semi legal to where prostitution was outlawed. (Sweden, for example, won’t charge the prostitutes but the johns). The primary focus of this section is the use of sexual slavery and child trafficking. Kristof tells a particularly chilling story of a border guard in India who will stop the import of pirated DVDS, but not of young girls that are sold into brothels. The guard sees such foreign women as less than Indian women. Kristof and WuDunn examine the cultural beliefs that led themselves to a tacit endorsement of such trafficking.

The human trafficking section gives way to a section about the use of rape as punishment, control, and a terror device. Included in this section is the story of Usha Narayane, a woman who lived in an Indian slum. She and her family were Dalits (Untouchables), and the slum was under control of a man, Yadav, a gangster who was able to terrorize the slum (though rape and sexual violence) because the police were paid off and looked the other way. Yadav attacked Narayane’s neighbor and Narayane went to the police to report it. Yadav and his men threaten Narayane at her family’s house. The thing is that Narayane’s was a well educated woman, as was her family; they were well liked in the slum. Narayane fought back and this inspired the others in the slum to fight back as well. They attacked Yadav who eventually turned himself into the police for his own protection. During what amounts to a pre-trial hearing, the women from the slum showed up and stabbed Yadav to death. Each woman stabbed him once. The importance of this story isn’t the revenge killing; in fact, there is a slight uncomfortable feeling in the retelling, but the fact that women can rise up and can effect change.

There is a more famous story told in the section on rape, that of Mukhtar Mai, the young woman who was ordered gang raped as punishment for an “alleged” crime of her brother. She ended up pressing charges, facing death threats, and persecution from the government. What is important about these stories is that Kristof and WuDunn never take them out of context. They are careful to keep the stories within a culture, while comparing it to Western way. In other words, they do not paint Mukhtar Mai as the definition of a Western feminist. The reader is told her whole story, including her becoming a man’s second wife.

The rape section also includes a good description of Rapex, an insert able vagina detintia, and its inspiration.

At one point in the first half of the novel, the authors seem to wonder if they are portraying men in too negative a light.

They’re not. This book is pro-women, but it is not anti-male.

Even if one were to disregard that one of the authors is a man, plenty of the stories about woman’s success also illustrate the support of men. Mukhtar Mai was supported by her father and brothers, Narayane and her fellow women also had the support of their male relatives, a young girl continues school after a rape that was suppose to end in her marriage because her father supports her. It is true there are some stories were the husband’s look bad (and strangely, these stories appear most in the section about women and business), but 95% of the stories show men in a positive light. Not as protectors or rescuers, but as supporters.

Additionally, Kristof and WuDunn keep the focus on what local people are doing. They focus mostly on the grassroots level. While they illustrate and call for Western nations to help in terms of donations, they do not present “the great white man coming to save the poor colored natives” approach that can sometimes appear. While they present Westerns (primary Americans and Brits) who have helped women in developing countries, Kristof and WuDunn keep the focus on what local women are doing. We are given, in brief, the story of a hospital founded in Africa to repair fistulas, but we are given, in far more depth, the story of a woman who went to be treated there and ended up becoming a doctor who now works there. Furthermore, they argue for cultural understanding as well as aid. In other words, they caution against going to X and demanding that it become Westernized.
The book is not designed to be a Hollywood happy ending book; the difficulties of aid are presented quite well. It does not bash one political party or the other, but instead calls upon the right and the left to work together. It is a call to arms at a governmental level as well as a grassroots one. Arguing, quite eloquently that in order to fight poverty and even terrorism, women should be emancipated.

Read this book now – just to find out how big the problem is. Some of the information is absolutely frightening.

(Incidentally, there is a section on Islam and the 70 virgins. The authors point out that some scholars think the word that some people means virgins might mean white grapes instead.)
Profile Image for Lucy.
417 reviews626 followers
March 15, 2018
Such a great book. It will make the reader more aware of the difficulties that women face and how they sometimes overcome these circumstances. It shows you the strength and resilience that women show when faced with these circumstances.

The book also provides first hand accounts of the women in these situations and also provides statistics. It is a great balance.

The book explores the different charitable work that helps these women and also writes up how you can help too. It's hard to just stand by and do nothing after reading this book- even if that means signing up to newsletters to stay better informed of international women's rights!

One of the best books I've read addressing women's issues!
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
November 13, 2018
Really a depressing read. I mean, wow. It sucks to be a woman basically anywhere. And womens health worldwide seems to be an afterthought. So in the way of exposure, this is a must-read. I don't love all their solutions. Micro-credit? Nope. They say capitalism can fix it. Nah, not quite. Also, they're really into NGOs and donations coming from good people in the west, but these problems are systemic and structural. This is going to take a lot more than nice people and NGOs. It's my frequent frustration with Kristof and his ilk. It was hilarious when he touted the three cups of tea guy as a lodestar for what others should do. I sure as hell hope we can come up with something better than a fraudulent guy who gets press and steals money from donations.
Profile Image for C..
496 reviews182 followers
Want to read
December 9, 2009
I'm a little bit concerned when empowerment of women becomes a political tool. It's easier for a masculinised system of power to say that women need to be educated in Afghanistan because it will help reduce terrorism than to say that women need to be educated in Afghanistan because they are, you know, human beings. Domestic violence, rape and general mistreatment or oppression of women can easily be turned into a political symbol that represents nationalistic or other concerns (as is shown very clearly by the western media's portrayal of the Taliban's [and Islam's] treatment of women) rather than the need to give women better lives for their own sake. Enloe argues that this is rarely beneficial for women.

On the other hand, more women getting more education has to be a good thing, even if it's done for the wrong reasons, right?
Profile Image for Carol.
835 reviews499 followers
May 22, 2013
Our fiction book group decided to tackle Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide as our last book discussion this season. Why you ask? Fiction, it’s not but who better as we are a group totally made up of women; smart, aware, thinking women at that.
There was not one woman who did not feel this was a hard book to read. Many said they would not have finished if not for the book group. I felt it was the least I could do. If there are women who would crawl miles for medical attention, who are stoned to death because they have a broken hymen, who can state they are ”only raped” while men who leave the camp are killed, I owe these women the courtesy to finish the book and to think about ways that changes can be made.
I heard loud and clear the feeling of some women of these women who have different viewpoints, different religions or cultures that who am I to tell them what to do or preach to them about women’s rights. So what to do? In brainstorming we decided that they will take advice and help better from their own countrywomen. We thought it better to finance their efforts which we hope would empower them to seek changes.
One thing I liked about how the author’s constructed this book is that they gave many ideas and thought on the ways one person (you or me) could help. I definitely came away feeling one person can make a difference.
Our group was grateful that the authors included pictures of some of the women whose stories they told. Putting a face to a name makes it much more personal. The authors themselves acknowledge that campaigns that assist an individual woman, subsidizing a project often do better than those that are seek general contributions.
There are so many injustices still being inflicted on women all over the world, including our own country. There are no easy answers. We feel that education is paramount, not only of the women, but the boys and men. Our leader mentioned this project, Games for Change is testing three mobile games aimed at communities in India and East Africa. Children in these countries will be able to play 9 Minutes (on healthy birthing practices), Worm Attack! (de-worming awareness) and Family Values (highlighting the value of girls in families).
Many of us left thinking about what we might do. How about you? At the very least read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and then pass it on.
Profile Image for Idarah.
464 reviews51 followers
February 18, 2014
It’s hard to escape the escalating decline in world conditions. Whether it’s refugees’ stories from far flung war-torn countries, or reports involving the abuse of our environment and its critters, there is no limit to the different forms of media that are reporting global events non-stop. Even if the view outside our kitchen window is generally uneventful and peaceful, books like Half the Sky are a cold slice of reality pie.

Half the Sky focuses on human rights violations against women around the world, but mostly in Africa and Asia. Divided into areas of concern such as sex trafficking, systematic rape, maternal mortality, and illiteracy, Kristof incorporates statistics with personal life stories. Many of them were hard to listen to, and at one point I found myself stuck in rush hour traffic sobbing into my sweater sleeves. As “advanced” as mankind is, why are things like this still going on today? Why are these things generally unknown, although they’re not taking place in secret? I enjoy documentaries and books like these because they make me more aware of what is going on around the world. If all I believed was based on what I saw on the news, I’d be one short sighted individual.

Pee-Wee Herman summed me up when he said: “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” I mention him because my only complaint about this book, call me a pragmatic idealist if you want, was that I don’t like being told what to feel. A compelling life story was almost always followed by a proposed plan of action that equated the group of women to monetary assets. Everything was reduced to dollars and cents. I get it, people higher up won’t focus on these women’s issues if it’s not profitable, but isn’t that the sad part to begin with? What’s a life worth? No matter how much is donated to certain causes, or how many laws are passed, it ultimately can’t change the way people think or feel, let alone how they treat others. I guess I would have prefered the journalistic touch without the agenda. Just my musings, at any rate. Highly recommended if you’re interested in current events in regards to the oppression of women, and what they do to overcome these obstacles.
Profile Image for Sarah.
50 reviews2 followers
October 11, 2012
Okay, I've totally had a change of heart regarding this book. Oddly enough, it took an ignorant comment from someone I don't even know on Facebook to look at it differently. Someone was making the argument that giving a baby boy a circumcision in the US is the same as female genital cutting in third world countries. This person went so far as to say that infant boys feel just as oppressed as the girls who are cut. WHAT??!! Clearly, this person has no idea what these women and girls go through. It made me realize how necessary this book is. A part of me would like to think that most Americans "get it," but apparently some really don't. The suffering of these women and girls is real and intense beyond what we can even imagine (lucky us!). Their stories need to be told. As heartbreaking as it is, this needs to be required reading. We can all use the perspective.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,539 followers
July 30, 2012
Outstanding account of the forces that are destroying the lives of young girls and mothers throughout the world and the keys to hope for effective action to address the problems. Sexual slavery and trafficking, genital mutilations, and maternal death and health disasters associated with childbirth are the main focus.

The statistics are staggering, with 2-3 million girls and women forcefully enslaved annually compared to about 50,000 blacks enslaved at its peak in the 19th century, and more deaths have occurred from childbirth in the last 5 years than all those killed in all the wars in the last century. But statistics are numbing, and they tend to diminish the choice to take action by the concerned public. More potent in effecting positive change is exposure to individual stories of people who have stood up to various modes of gender inequality with courageous and creative means. That is what this book does and why it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Small local efforts can snowball into changes in community attitudes and seed growth of programs that make a difference. In example after example, the authors move the reader beyond shock and tears to a vision for how any individual can contribute to the solution. Keeping young girls in school longer is a key strategy that has broad ramifications. Another is the support of organizations that facilitate local micro-loan programs that can become a ticket for women to garner independence, self-efficacy, and a pathway out of crushing poverty.

Perhaps you, like me, avoid delving into the ugliness behind these topics. You would do well to discontinue that pattern where this book is concerned because you will miss out on realistic visions of hope for a better world.
Profile Image for d4.
352 reviews181 followers
September 3, 2012
I started reading Half the Sky on March 31st of 2011. GoodReads tells me this, but I would have remembered regardless. I read the first fifty pages of the book in bed and felt the heaviest weight on my chest. It simply hurt too much to bear alone. I left the bedroom and joined my boyfriend in the living room, where he was seated on the couch. I snuggled up in his lap, wanting him to hold me, to comfort me, to ease the pain I was feeling; instead, he found it to be the right moment for breaking up with me. Life is funny like that.

Well, it has been more than a year and I am finally prepared to give this book a second chance. I hope I am strong enough to get through not only the sadness inherent in the subject matter, but also the strong negative connotation that has developed due to the circumstances in which I quit reading it the first time. My roomie says I can harass him for hugs if it gets too real and too sad. I expect it will.
Profile Image for Jason.
372 reviews48 followers
November 9, 2012
Everyone should read this book, EVERYONE!

This is reporting at it's best. This book gives you facts and numbers galore, but the researched data plays a support role to the personal stories that provide the human basis for each topic addressing the oppression of women, as well as, the inroads in fighting it. It really covers every side of the story and does it so intelligently that it works on both sides of the brain in ebbs and flows; it touches you emotionally and then has you transition into more analytical thought and then back again.

Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,931 reviews438 followers
December 15, 2016
'Half the Sky' is about the 'cultural', 'customary' and 'religious' abuse of women because they are women. The life stories of dozens of women around the world are told through anecdotes of their childhood, marriage and culture. The authors personally visited the homes of many of these women, using translators when necessary. The writers also flesh out the heroic struggles of these abused women to overcome their cultures with additional explanatory history and facts.

Many of these women escaped torture and cruelty from their own families and government laws, and from religious authorities and community customs. The authors make heroic efforts to spin these autobiographies into happy or positive upbeat endings, which should satisfy the sensitive Pollyannas and religious apologists, if not the scientists or statisticians or sociologists. The writers also try to avoid making gothic tales out of these true stories of woe.

I am not under any such restriction. These women were tortured. Rape is torture. Being raped as a childbride is torture. Being raped by 20 men a day while locked in a room is torture. Being gang-raped by soldiers is torture.

Sending boys to school but keeping girls untaught and ignorant in the home is criminal. It is intentionally making a slave of females simply because they are female and the family wants slaves to do the scut work of the family. Religious reasons are a lie to cover up the need for unpaid slaves for the dirty, disrespected and despised labor given to women because it is labor which is dirty, disrespected and despised by men.

Half the Sky' is a book full of anecdotes by women around the world, especially those from China, India, and the African continent, especially from those who live in Islamic theocracies and those who are followers of Muslim culture. Before you decide to get huffy at yet maybe another anti-Muslim diatribe, there is a reason many of these narratives involve Muslim believers. It is because forms of Islam are still being taught to many Muslim believers to hurt women because they told it is permitted and encouraged by their god. This is just plain fact. Christianity is my country's primary religion - and under Christianity, I was also enslaved and harmed and abused because Christianity gave men the right to do it. 'Christian 'culture', which has been filtered into American government laws, continued to view women as legal incompetents fit only to cook, have sex and raise children for almost three centuries.

I have read negative reviews of 'Half the Sky'. Many of them puzzle the shit out of me. I understand those who did not like the book because of its anecdotal shape - it is tiresome to read chapter after chapter of unending pain and agony and loss and grief. So many women, so much abuse, although the authors were bending backwards to avoid sensationalism and to emphasize any positive outcomes. I suppose some readers wanted a more scientific study approach with chapters and chapters of charts and measurements, perhaps even with blind studies and experiments. I really don't understand how this would have improved the book, actually, but the authors have included a large note section that shows academic and journalism sources.

Other reviewers have said the book is Smug. Heavy-handed. Exploitive. Racist-love. Infantilizes readers. Really. Really?!?!? In my opinion, as usual, Truth is too raw for some.

It is not decent or loving to cut girls' vaginas up. However, this is a reality for many Muslim women.

Shushing up or covering up any explicit conversation about these 'cultures' and 'customs' and religions to avoid blaming communities because of the possibility of ethnocentrism is vile and evil to me. Spinning rape and slavery as something we must understand through the background of culture and religion is not only vile and evil, it is absolutely impossible for me. Real life is often gothic, horrific and, yes, politically incorrect. Being politically correct to avoid ethnocentrism might work for some, especially Pollyannas and for those whose heads are so full of cultural tolerance that their brains are leaking out of their ears, but this is not for me.

Many of the women in the book are now supporting themselves by starting small businesses after Western NGO's and charities assisted them in health benefits, education, and temporary housing. After all, they could only expect help from outside of their families and community and religion and government. It was the government, community, religion and family who tortured and oppressed them (my words).

This book, and many politically correct liberals and conservatives, would rather use different words instead of abuse - words like 'discrimination' or 'cultural norms' or 'religious faith'. However, anybody who follows my reviews will need to understand I do not generally use euphemisms when it comes to abuse, nor do I believe in watering down my language in order to not offend because of readers' sensitivities or my so-called prejudiced opinions if I feel things must be said. I willingly accept being called prejudiced and biased if I am outraged upon seeing a nine-year-old being married to a 30-year-old man, or a woman being flogged because her ankle showed below the hem of her burqa, or discover the Somalian student with whom I am talking is hurting because of the stiffened scars from Female Genital Mutilation. Abuse is not only about not being hired to work as a clerk because you are not white or a man. Abuse is having your clitoris cut off with a razor because you are nine-years-old and live in Africa or live in America with African parents who became American citizens. I don't give a damn about being culturally sensitive when it comes to torturing women in the name of religion and custom and culture.

I am a woman. I was abused as a child. Most of the abuse came because I was female, and it was permitted by people around me because I was female, and I accepted it because I had no rights and no place to go; and people who were appalled could not help me because there was literally no laws on the books forbidding the abuse, and much of the abuse was by men who had all of the rights. They got away with it because America, yes, America, was a racist, misogynist, discriminatory culture. The rights given Americans in the Constitution did not apply to women or to people of color or many who were poor.

If a man gambled or drank away his paycheck, his wife and kids starved. Women were not hired at most of the available jobs in the 1950's because 'culture' and 'custom' meant employers only hired men, although women could have done the work. When women were hired, it was for only 25 cents for every $1.00 men were paid for the same work. But rarely were women working next to men at the same work. Women could be housecleaners, waitresses, secretaries, nurses or teachers. Not much of a list of available jobs for women, is it? If a woman got married, a woman was expected to quit working, a 'cultural' custom, which pushed many families into deep poverty and starvation.

To give a more 'benign', non-triggering, example of past American gender discrimination, for example, about money: I was not legally allowed a credit card until 1976, and then I was permitted a credit ceiling of $300. As a comparison, my husband had seven credit cards at the same time, each with a limit of $20,000. I could not buy a car or get a student loan under my own signature. I could only get a loan to attend college or buy a car if my brother, father or husband signed the contract. In 1995, my sister-in-law tried to buy a car for her own use, but she was turned away "until your husband can come in".

When I married, whatever credit I had built immediately disappeared. I no longer had an identity. The 'custom' of America in 1980 was that any wife in America legally no longer existed as living human being, much less an adult. I was only the Mrs. belonging to my caretaker Man husband, who was the only legally recognized living human in my marriage. The bank took my name off my credit card and my bank accounts and put on my husband's. He could access all of my money, wherever it was, work, pensions, banks - but I could not access his accounts without his signed permission. I no longer had the means to pay rent or a mortgage or for food, much less electricity, water or sewage without my husband's authority to do so, despite my full-time job and my education. America's custom of treating married women as wards under the management of their husbands rendered me officially into a nameless powerless baby again even though I was 25 years old and I had been living by myself for seven years. I was welcomed as his new house slave, though. I guess I could count my 'blessings' that it was the 1970's and 1980's.

I was accepted by the University of Washington to begin, hopefully, working towards a Bachelors degree in the 1970's, after I had busted my ass scholastically for thirteen years, despite family opposition and the 'culture' and 'custom' and religious norms of America for women's roles, limiting me to being a teacher or nurse if I got a college degree. However, my father, who was the only one who could legally apply for a college loan for me, said to me when I handed him my acceptance letter, "No man would want you!" and tore up my letter and loan papers.

Warning. The following might be a trigger for you. But it is real and true.

As an American toddler, I was prostituted. I remember the judge saying to the adults guilty of this, "Goddamn it. I can only sentence you to three months in jail for Pandering. Goddamn it all to hell. If I could I would put you away for the rest of your goddamn life." You see, gentle reader, there were literally no laws on the books for prosecuting adults who prostituted children from their own family, just as no police ever arrested men for breaking the bodies of their wives and children by beating them with belts, cords, metal hangers, steel-toed shoes or furniture. It was the 'custom' and the 'culture', based on Christian bible verses in America. It was the 1950's.

No, gentle reader. Personally, I am NOT very gentle of 'culture' and 'custom' and 'religion'.
913 reviews409 followers
June 14, 2010
It’s hard to be critical of a book with such an important topic and message. “Half the Sky” increases its readers’ awareness of the horrific things endured by women in some parts of the world – rape, forced prostitution at an early age, honor killings, infanticide for being the wrong gender, genital cutting, etc. The book does this through a series of gut-wrenching anecdotes which succeed in putting a human face on the statistics. Despite the intensely depressing quality of these stories (and they are depressing), there is a thread of empowerment running throughout the book as you read about the individuals who try to fight this phenomenon and sometimes actually succeed.

Along the lines of “Three Cups of Tea,” “Half the Sky” hammers home the need to provide educational and vocational opportunities for girls and women as a way of empowering them. It’s a message that resonates with me. As with “Three Cups of Tea,” though, I appreciated the book’s inspiring theme far more than the book itself.

Aside from feeling really wrung out as a result of continuous bombardment with graphic horror stories (which unfortunately, started to all blur together after a while), I was bothered that the book made no pretense of objective reporting. The authors did not hesitate to describe humanitarian individuals they encountered as “saints,” to project what they thought people were thinking and feeling as opposed to quoting them or providing evidence of their leanings, or to use words like “should” or “must” frequently. I was particularly irked by the use of the word “apparently” where “presumably” would have been far more accurate. To me, “apparently” indicates that “the evidence suggests;” however, “apparently” was thrown around frequently in places where it was pretty obvious that the authors were “presuming” (or more likely, projecting) rather than scrutinizing the evidence, which was nonexistent. Certainly I agree with most if not all of what the authors were saying; really, it’s hard to imagine disagreeing that these women’s human rights are being violated and that something must be done. Yet the tone of the book was off-putting to me. The overload of graphic descriptions followed by polemic felt manipulative somehow.

The book’s cause is unquestionably a worthy one, which makes me feel terribly guilty feeling and voicing this criticism. I feel like I should really be saying, hey, do whatever works to get attention and assistance for these women. And had the authors gone to the other extreme and reported in a detached manner, I might have found that offensive, or simply ineffective, in a different way. Still, I can’t help but think the book might have actually been more powerful had the author’s agenda been less overt.

On a more positive note, this book made me want to go on a rooftop and sing “God Bless America” at the top of my lungs. I’m so grateful to be a product of 20th century western civilization. I’m so grateful to be dealing with my petty little hassles and not living the tragic lives described in this book. Even if I got nothing else out of this book (which, in fairness, is actually not the case; the book was both informative and interesting throughout notwithstanding my issues with its tone), that realization alone deserves at least 3 stars.
Profile Image for Charlotte.
106 reviews
February 9, 2010
It's eye-opening, sad, bleak and compelling. The abuse and strength of women in developing and third world countries is told through the stories of individual women the authors have met. They plead the case for education and health care to make a difference. Here's a review that says it much better than I can:

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. New York Times columnist Kristof and his wife, WuDunn, a former Times reporter, make a brilliantly argued case for investing in the health and autonomy of women worldwide. More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century, they write, detailing the rampant gendercide in the developing world, particularly in India and Pakistan. Far from merely making moral appeals, the authors posit that it is impossible for countries to climb out of poverty if only a fraction of women (9% in Pakistan, for example) participate in the labor force. China's meteoric rise was due to women's economic empowerment: 80% of the factory workers in the Guangdong province are female; six of the 10 richest self-made women in the world are Chinese. The authors reveal local women to be the most effective change agents: The best role for Americans... isn't holding the microphone at the front of the rally but writing the checks, an assertion they contradict in their unnecessary profiles of American volunteers finding compensations for the lack of shopping malls and Netflix movies in making a difference abroad.
Profile Image for Katie.
8 reviews2 followers
May 19, 2010
I think it is CRUCIAL to draw attention to the oppression of women, especially the oppression of women of color from around the world. I think my problem with the book is that instead of challenging the system that is oppressing these women, it's throwing options like micro-finance at the problem. Instead of critically examining what kind of system (political or economic) would be least oppressive to people world wide, it's touting capitalism, which always relies on power imbalance, exploitation and individualism. Options like micro-finance are hugely transformative for people who receive those grants, but not culturally transformational.
I would recommend this book for someone who was not really aware of international injustice towards women, almost as a base, but not as a problem solver.
Profile Image for Zinta.
Author 4 books237 followers
October 25, 2009
This book is important. So important, in fact, that first reviews from reputable sources are calling it the most important book of the year, some even calling it the most important book of our time. Yes. It is.
Now and then we must pick up a book that awakens in us all the compassion, all the indignation, all the heart we need to make a difference in the world. And that’s the best part: each and everyone one of us can.

Nicholas Kristof may be a name you already recognize as a New York Times op-ed columnist. Both he and wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work in journalism. Kristof has won two Pulitzer Prizes, WuDunn shares one with Kristof for the work they have done together. WuDunn worked as business editor for the Times and foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. The two of them have already collaborated on two previous books. I dare say, none yet of such global reach as this one.

Half the Sky is a very readable collection of individual stories, interspersed with narrative by the authors for appropriate background. Very readable, yet simultaneously shattering. And, simultaneously, deeply inspiring. “Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb that pulls these stories of women throughout the world together into one great call for the emancipation of women in 21st-century slavery.

“When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls. We journalists weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball on this subject: Less than one percent of U.S. foreign aid is specifically targeted to women and girls.”

Kristof and WuDunn pick up the dropped ball in Half the Sky and toss it at the reader—at you. The stories here are about girls and women in Cambodia, in the Congo, in Thailand, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Burundi, Senegal, and many other parts of the world. Yes, wherever you may be, from your part of the world, too. If not always directly, then not as indirectly as you may think, because the sex trade and human trafficking has spread to the United States in alarming numbers and with alarming effect. Eastern Europe suffers from human trafficking, too, as it struggles with poverty. Witness the efforts of the pornography industry to make pornography mainstream. Humans have become wares up for sale, slavery today far outnumbering anything yet seen in human history.

The authors state: “107 million females are missing from the globe today… Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”

“The global statistics on the abuse of girls is numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. 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 in the developing world.”

But Kristof and WuDunn understand that it does little good to toss out numbers and statistics. Not like this just began yesterday. The horror of gender discrimination, of human trafficking and sex slavery, across the world has been ignored for a very, very long time. The way to bring this horror home to move hearts and begin the process of change is by giving these stories a face, a name, someone with whom we can identify. This could have been me. This might have been my daughter. And even with that false comfort, that it may not be you, or your daughter, the authors make sure by end of the book that we all understand that these women touch all our lives. “Countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized,” they remind us. “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”

We read the stories of girls stolen from families who live in poverty. The lies told to unwitting parents are that their little girls, as young as eight years old, will be brought into the city and cared for, put to work there selling food or flowers or other such. Instead, these children and young women are thrown into brothels, were they are beaten, over and over again, into submission. Usually, they are also forced into drug addiction, effectively making them slaves of these addictions, so that even when they might have a chance to run, the agony of withdrawal keeps them coming back. And still they run. Corrupt police capture them, gang rape them (yes, police), and bring them back again. Or, an increasingly common tactic of revenge against women who escape is to toss acid into their faces until their living flesh melts away. A gouged eye will do just fine, too. Little girls, once beaten into submission, are locked into rooms with paying male customers (young virgins bring the highest price), to come out later, bloodied and raped. How many American tourists and business men have bragged about their trips to Thailand to enjoy all that “open” sex trade?

I, too, have at times wondered if one way of combating the abuse of girls and women into forced prostitution (an interesting phrase, implying that any woman in her right mind would willingly prostitute herself if she had other options available) by legalizing it and so offering certain protections to women, might be at least a partial answer. The authors write:

“What policy should we pursue to try to eliminate that slavery? Originally, we sympathized with the view that a prohibition won’t work any better against prostitution today than it did against alcohol in America in the 1920s. Instead of trying fruitlessly to ban prostitution, we believed it would be preferable to legalize and regulate it.

“Over time, we’ve changed our minds. That legalize-and-regulate model simply hasn’t worked very well in countries where prostitution is often coerced… legal brothels ten to attract a parallel illegal business in young girls and forced prostitution. In contrast, there’s empirical evidence that crackdowns can succeed, when combined with social services such as job retraining and drug rehabilitation, and that’s the approach we’ve come to favor.”

People often point to the Netherlands as an example of a place where the sex trade has been legalized, but the authors peel back that rationalization and make an interesting comparison with Sweden, where the purchase of sexual services was criminalized in 1999. Men caught paying for sex are fined, imprisoned for up to six months. The prostitute, however, is not punished. In effect, this approach reflects the view, far more accurate, that the prostitute is not the criminal, but a victim of a crime. The “john,” however, is a victimizer, taking advantage of someone’s dire situation in life. Keeping in mind that studies show more than 90 percent of women engaging in prostitution or in pornography have been sexually molested prior to doing so, it is only logical to seek protection for those women and putting the crime on the shoulders where it belongs: on the man buying the service or buying or using pornography.

“A decade later, Sweden’s crackdown seems to have been more successful [than the Netherlands:] in reducing trafficking and forced prostitution. The number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped by 41 percent in the first five years… and the price of sex dropped, too—a pretty good indication that demand was down… traffickers believe that trafficking girls into Sweden is no longer profitable and that girls should be taken to Holland instead… 81 percent of Swedes approved of the law.”

Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of the women in these situations to bring reality to the numbers and theories, but the overall message is one of empowerment for women. Their advice is not only to the girls and women directly in the line of fire, however. This message is for women everywhere. Empowerment and drawing the line of here and no further against any kind of gender discrimination, built upon the cornerstone of objectification of girls and women, begins with any female reading these lines. And, with any male who respects the opposite gender—and himself, enough to demand that women and girls be treated as human beings and not as objects for his pleasure.

“One of the reasons that so many women and girls are kidnapped, trafficked, raped, and otherwise abused is that they grin and bear it. Stoic docility—in particular, acceptance of any decree by a man—is drilled into girls in much of the world from the time they are babies, and so they often do as they are instructed, even when the instruction is to smile while being raped twenty times a day.

“This is not to blame the victims. There are good practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed. But the reality is that as long as women and girls allow themselves to be prostituted and beaten, the abuse will continue.”
This empowerment begins with education. There is good reason why in so many parts of the world, education is denied to girls and women.

Thinking leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empowerment. Empowerment leads to change. “Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not entail docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.”

Here, the reader begins to understand, too. When these girls and women do stand up and demand justice, when they shout against their abusers to stop, it is imperative that we who live in more privilege echo their cries and add our own in support. “Easy for outsiders like us to say: We’re not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it’s imperative that outsiders champion her; we must also nurture institutions to protect such people. Sometimes we may even need to provide asylum for those whose lives are in danger. More broadly, the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education, and we can do far more to promote universal education in poor countries… There will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back.”

The stories of individual women who have done just that, mustering up more courage than most of us can even imagine, have made dramatic changes not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those living in their villages, towns, cities, even countries. The domino effect of this kind of empowerment cannot be overstated. These women are true heroes who inspire us all. Against unimaginable odds, some against their own families, against husbands who declared them untouchable after gang rapes, mothers who shunned them in favor of their sons, corrupt police who not only ignored their cries for help but alarmingly often gang raped these same women all over again, still these women rebelled and would not allow their spirits to be broken.

As the world is ripped apart by terrorism and war, women continue to become a weapon of war. When wars die down, domestic violence continues a silent war in many homes—and this is a growing epidemic in American homes, too.

“Surveys suggest that about one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and warm combined. A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend.”

The authors ask little, really, of their readers. Letter-writing campaigns, for instance, empower those whose voices are drowned out by their abusers. Petitions get noticed. Even, I like to think, writing a book review such as this one can help in raising awareness (I have suggested reading Half the Sky to my women’s book club, and I look forward to our group discussions). While monetary donations can make a dramatic difference—and there is list of verified charities in the back of the book—the authors point out that the American penchant to change unjust laws is too often only a beginning to creating change. Changing a culture is far more important, because traditions over many generations can hold very firm, even when they are made illegal. Sexism and misogyny is rampant worldwide, and when such attitudes are deeply ingrained in a culture, even the women participate. Infanticide of female babies is often at the hands of mothers, and women who have been abused themselves often become the abusers of the next generation of girls. Knowing nothing else, minds washed of rational thinking, accepting a view of themselves as less than human out of ignorance, such victims become victimizers, and the only way to stop this vicious cycle is stop wrong thinking—by education. And not just in other places. Education at home, too.

“One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Study abroad programs tend to consist of herds of students visiting Oxford or Florence or Paris. We believe that universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world.”

A current effort by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is to raise awareness and fight mass rape of girls and women as a weapon of war. In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a weapon of war. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, in addressing rape being used as a war tactic, said, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”
“The world capital of rape is eastern Congo. Militias consider it risky to engage in firefights with other gunmen, so instead they assault civilians. They discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations is to conduct rapes of stunning brutality. Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives of bayonets, or else they fire their guns into women’s vaginas… soldiers raped a three-year-old girl and then fired their guns into her. When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair. The little girl’s grief-stricken father then committed suicide.”

According to various counts done by the United Nations, about three quarters of the women in the Congo have been raped. By “women,” it should be made clear, the authors include girls as young as six years old, and sometimes even younger. Considering that many of the Congolese troops are young boys, one can only imagine the damage done on a cultural level in terms of how such males will forever after view females, their own future wives and daughters.

One of the physical ailments these raped girls and women suffer is called a fistula. This is a condition of internal organ damage that can lead to waste freely spilling out, or problems in childbirth that often lead to death. The authors describe this common result of rape, and they also discuss female genital mutilation, the latter often being a result of long held tradition in some cultures. In short, this is a process of cutting genitals of girls, usually with unsanitary knives, always without anesthesia of any kind. The cultural basis of this cruel practice is to control a woman’s sexuality. The idea is basically that if a woman cannot feel sexual pleasure, she is more likely not to stray from her future husband. The result of this practice is often lifelong injury and scarring. Complications can be fistulas, infections, and other medical conditions that can be crippling if not fatal. Simply getting laws on the books to make such practices illegal, however, do little to change tradition held through many generations. Once again, the answer can be in raising awareness, educating women that such barbaric practices are not acceptable, are not a “cultural tradition” to uphold, but a monstrous practice that falls into human rights abuse.
Kristof and WuDunn remind us as we read through these stories and their surrounding narrative: “We’re wary of taking the American women’s movement as a model, because if the international effort is dubbed a ‘women’s issue,’ then it will already have failed. The unfortunate reality is that women’s issues are marginalized, and in any case sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women’s issue than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed.”

Solutions to these problems begin with viewing women fully as human beings. Not a gender to be used and abused, overpowered and beaten down, but as human beings with full rights to be treated as such. The authors write about the changes that can, and have, come about where women are given equal rights, including the right to own property, the right to have determination over their own bodies, the right to basic health care, the right to have a voice over their own lives. The reason they give for empowering women as a means to ease, or even eliminate world poverty, is an illustration of how men have used donated funds. According to studies, the top three expenditures for money donated to men in developing countries have been alcohol, prostitutes, and candy. Whereas when women have been given money, they have used it for medical care, for food to feed their families, and for education. Uplifting stories include those of women who were once beaten by their husbands, but were given loans of sometimes no more than fifty dollars, enabling them to completely transform their lives. The results have been thriving new family businesses that would employ others, helping not only one family, but the entire town in which that family lives.

The book concludes with chapters titled, “What You Can Do,” and the answers are stunningly simple. A little can have ripple effects that go a long, long way. I personally decided, after exploring online various charities the authors recommend, to sign up with Women Helping Women International, donating $27 on a monthly basis to a woman who has survived multiple gang rapes and been ostracized by her family and village. But the authors remind us that money isn’t always necessary. Voicing support, volunteering, your own education on these matters, can all add up a transformative movement with global outreach.

“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings. The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction. Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete—and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”

See http://www.halftheskymovement.org/ to learn more, to do more.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Profile Image for Brooke.
538 reviews298 followers
May 12, 2013
I've been a longtime reader of feminist books, websites, and blogs, but I still had difficulty getting through this book. At times I put it down for a few hours to emotionally recover from what I had just read. After wondering for a while why I found this book difficult to read, I concluded that it was its focus on individual stories instead of broader statistics or general descriptions. The authors spend most of their time discussing specific women's lives and then relating these individuals to the larger backdrop, something that I haven't encountered often. The authors note that a focus on individuals has been shown to increase charitable giving, which suggests that my reaction is a common one.

I've noticed that some of the negative reviews of this book fall into the "white man's burden" category. However, I thought that this criticism ignored the running theme that most of the successes discussed in the book were grassroots efforts lead by local women and organizations who understood firsthand what they needed and what wouldn't work. The authors pointed out that Western organizations that want to help would be most successful in partnering with local people. They also highlighted multiple incidents where Western aid failed and explored why - with the answer usually being outsider ignorance of the culture or of the realities of poverty. They did mention that Western influence (a "treetop approach" as opposed to a "grassroots approach") was successful when it came to medical improvements, such as combating malaria, because it required scientific research and medical discoveries that local people did not have access to. They also noted that international outrage and punishment towards governments that allowed sexual slavery was very effective in reducing profitability of forced prostitution. However, by and large, the authors again and again pointed to local women being the most successful architects of their own improvements.

My one complaint is that the authors swept the lethality of American domestic violence under the rug in their introduction chapter. They say, "In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from the boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal." Later in the book, they emphasize that aid groups undermine themselves when they overstate or exaggerate in order to win more funding. They ought to have applied this admonishment to themselves as well - in America and other Western countries, women face violence, rape, and death from men in uncomfortably large numbers as well. While the countries that the book discusses certainly face these problems at a very alarming rate, America isn't some sparkly, female-friendly country where women merely worry about underfunded sports teams. The authors would not have hurt their message if they acknowledged that Western women are not safe from violence either but that their focus for the book was going to be on other parts of the world.
Profile Image for Tarah.
421 reviews60 followers
March 26, 2010
Now look. I get a lot of people telling me "oh my gosh, you have to read X book about X topic because YOU will love it". And I'm usually like "screw you, grandma, you don't know me!". No one likes to be pigeon-holed. Well, maybe you do. But I don't. So I came to this book thinking: "screw you everyone in the world who has been saying I should read this"... that being said:

This book is amazingly well-written. It's fluid and important; engaging and pressing. I've admired Kristoff's writing from the NYTimes, of course, and his and DuWonn's writing combined in this book is really admirable. As is their work. These stories are only as real as they are read. So READ THIS BOOK. I don't know if this book will tell you anything you don't already know (I didn't really learn much I didn't know already, I guess... but after 6 years on the Stop Violence Against Women Campaign, you get you some learning about the issues), but it told stories that I needed to hear, and did it in a way that made me feel empowered, instead of depressed.

It's a book you really, really should read. And I know, I know. I don't know you. But really. Read this book.
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