Half the Sky

August 19, 2010

Usually it takes me at least a few weeks to read any book, but when I picked up Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn I was immediately captivated and finished it (while also reading Building Social Business by Muhammad Yunus) in just a few days.  Like an addictive drug, I couldn´t stay away from the book for too long before tearing through a new chapter.  Nicholas and Sheryl are practiced storytellers (not surprisingly as they have both won the Pulitzer prize) and they use their talent to tell captivating stories about the women of the world who have been abused and systematically mistreated.  They use stories (rather than statistics) to convey very powerful images that leave the reader wishing he or she could do something to help immediately.  The authors aren´t shy about their tactics either; they write, “Frankly, we hesitate to pile on the data, since even when numbers are persuasive, they are not galvanizing.  A growing collection of psychological studies show that statistics have a dulling effect, while it is individual stories that move people to act…So we would prefer to move beyond statistics and focus on an individual…” Needless to say, their approach worked on me.

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Okay, it’s a good read…but what is it about?

The book navigates a number of issues afflicting women around the world, some of which I was aware of, others that I had heard of before.  We´re not talking about issues that one is likely to encounter in America, but rather problems that typically occur in developing countries and put women at a significant disadvantage.  As the title refers to, women do hold up half the sky and the world would benefit greatly if they were allowed to flourish to their full potential.  Issues covered in the book range from infant gender-cide and gender discrimination by parents to sex trafficking, genital cutting, fistulas (post on this topic to come soon), honor killings and more.

To give you a taste, here is part of what they say about honor killings: “Emphasis on sexual honor is today a major reason for violence against women.  Sometimes it takes the form of rape, because…often the simplest way to punish a rival family is to violate the daughter.  Sometimes it takes the form of honor killing, in which a family kills one of its own girls because she behaved immodestly or has fallen in love with a man (often there is no proof that they have had sex, and autopsies of victims of honor killings frequently reveal the hymen to be intact).  The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.”

I´m a guy, so why do I care?

I don´t consider myself to be a feminist, but I feel like no one in their right mind can read about what women have to go through and not feel that it is an injustice that must be resolved.  As a male reader, I still cringed at the thought of the way these poor women were treated; can you imagine being taken from your family at the age of twelve and being made to work as a prostitute against your will?  To be utterly helpless?  As Half the Sky describes, just rescuing girls isn´t enough as some brothels will force their girls to take addictive drugs so that even if they do escape, they are likely to return when their body starts to go through withdrawals.  Male or female, you will read this book and think, “what can I do to fix this?”


Thankfully Nicholas and Sheryl abate the reader’s angst by highlighting current solutions that are working and providing tips for how to get involved.  As it turns out, many of the issues women face can be resolved by eliminating poverty and improving education and awareness.  In fact, empowering women leads to economic growth, which then leads to better treatment of women, which then leads to further economic growth (you get the idea) as observed in China: “Eighty percent of the employees on the assembly lines in coastal China are female, and the proportion across the manufacturing belt of East Asia is at least 70 percent.  The economic explosion in Asia was, in large part, an outgrowth of the economic empowerment of women. … These countries took young women who previously had contributed negligibly to gross national product (GNP) and injected them into the formal economy, hugely increasing the labor force.  The basic formula was to ease repression, educate girls as well as boys, give the girls the freedom to move to the cities and take factory jobs, and then benefit from a demographic dividend as they delayed marriage and reduced childbearing.  The women meanwhile financed the education of younger relatives, and saved enough of their pay to boost national savings rates.”

Within the social enterprise space, the microfinance industry has recognized that lending to women is more likely to benefit the entire family.  Similarly, organizations like Akilah have recognized the importance of training women to be part of the formal economy.  I’m encouraged by these developments but reading Half the Sky was a stark reminder that there is still a long way to go for the fair treatment of women both abroad and here in the US. I will be sure to consider how to benefit women in all the work I do going forward.


- Bryan

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