Friday, September 17, 2010

Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Alfred A. Knopf Books, 2009. 294 pp. 978-1-61664-210-5.

... in which we learn about some of the terrible crimes being committed against women worldwide, and we learn of the various efforts underway to stop these crimes.

Anyone who is a regular reader of the Opinion section of the New York Times will likely recognize Nicholas Kristof's name. Kristof is the author of the blog On The Ground, where he writes mostly about international human rights issues. Others may recognize both Kristof's name, and his wife Sheryl WuDunn's name, as the two journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn tackle a variety of different types of oppression that women face. The majority of the stories come from southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Kristof and WuDunn traveled around the world and collected these stories from the women themselves, in addition to learning about various humanitarian efforts in each area.

The book starts out with a discussion on sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Many of the women and girls, especially in southeast Asia, were kidnapped or lured from their home villages. Some girls went willingly, believing that they were going to work at fruit stands in the city, and that they'd be able to send their wages home to feed their families. Instead, they'd find themselves beaten and locked in a brothel. The authors describe how various women made multiple attempts to escape from their lives in the brothels; some succeeded, some did not. Kristof actually visited a brothel, posing as a potential customer, and bought two girls from the brothel's owners. He took both girls back to their home villages and gave them money to start up their own little businesses; one eventually returned to the brothel because the owner had gotten her hooked on methamphetamine, and she was craving the drug.

The book segues from forced prostitution to the topic of rape as a weapon and method of social control. We learn about how gangs control villages through fear; if a family offends the gang, they'll rape the family's daughter and destroy the whole family's reputation (and make the girl unable to find a husband). It works on scales larger than just in villages, too; soldiers used it as a way of subduing local populations in times of war.

From violent rape, the book moves on to maternal mortality and health during pregnancy. In many villages, the women give birth with only a midwife untrained in medicine there to help. In one story, the midwife becomes impatient with a protracted, difficult birth, and jumps on the woman's abdomen, presumably to speed the process up. The rate of death in childbirth remains depressingly high in developing countries, particularly in rural areas. Much of this is due to a lack of education and funds, but a lot of it has to do with culture: it's not really worth the money to send a woman to a doctor. We also learn about the high incidence of death or permanent disability from fistulas, which are fairly simple and inexpensive to fix. A fistula is a consequence of many of these difficult labors, and occur when a hole forms in the lining of the bladder and/or rectum. As a consequence, the woman can't hold in her urine and feces and soon becomes a social outcast. Many women end up paralyzed and riddled with infection. They are often left to die alone.

We move on to the role of religion in misogyny. One chapter, titled "Is Islam Misogynistic?" is particularly interesting, mostly because it approaches its topic from a fairly unexpected angle. The instinctive answer to the question would probably be "yes", but the authors do a nice job distinguishing between the religion as the cause of the misogyny, vs culture as the cause. After all, they point out, the Christians living in primarily Islamic communities are just as prone to domestic violence as their Muslim neighbors are.

Throughout the whole book, there are two common themes: grassroots efforts and education. The authors show that while large aid groups are well-intentioned, they're often inefficient operations that are out of touch with the local culture, and are therefore unable to really mobilize the people to change. The smaller efforts, headed up by locals or by foreigners with a deep understanding of the culture, are better equipped to encourage people to change their behavior. This is partly because they're not seen as interfering outsiders, and partly because they understand the cultural nuances that contribute to the various horrifying practices. Education is highlighted as a partial solution to many of these problems: better-educated girls can find better jobs, stay out of the brothels, earn money and respect, and can learn to speak up when they object to something being done to them.

Kristof and WuDunn do an extremely good job of making it clear that none of these issues are black and white. In the section on female genital mutilation, they talk about how even though the practice is horrifying, many of the girls actually WANT to have it done to them. They also make it clear that the problem isn't just men; in many of the brothels in southeast Asia, the brothel owner's wife delivers the harshest beatings to the girls. Some of these prostitutes go on to become brothel managers themselves.

Despite the horrifying subject matter, the book itself is very easy to read. The book is extremely well written, and having so many of the stories told from a first-person perspective adds to it a lot. While the book is organized into loose sections covering different topics (prostitution, rape, etc), there aren't clear "boundaries" between the sections; instead, each topic kind of blends into the next one. This emphasizes the fact that these problems are not distinct from each other... they're all connected, and they're all symptoms of a common set of problems.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in human rights or humanitarian work. It's a fairly quick read, and the material is compelling enough that you'll want to keep reading, despite how unsettling it is.


  1. Wow, I'd really like to read this. I'd like to know more about the humanitarian efforts being made to address these issues. It seems like an incredibly complicated and difficult task. I may have to see if Amazon Japan has this book!

  2. Emily just loaned me her copy, it is now in my to-read pile... sounds depressing but important!

  3. It's actually less depressing than you might think... because it sounds like a lot of the humanitarian efforts are actually starting to work, slowly but surely!


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