Changing the World, One Woman at a Time


Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Knopf, 2009, 294 pp.

Also noted:

Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win

by Anne E. Kornblut

Crown, 2009, 288 pp.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

by Gail Collins

Little Brown, 2009, 480 pp.

“Women hold up half the sky” is a Chinese proverb that Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn use as a jumping off point for their book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Despite the optimism of this proverb, it is clear from the brutal stories of women’s suffering Kristof and WuDunn recount in their book, that women around the world have not been allowed to hold up—or appreciate—their half of the sky. Instead, an outdated and cruel system of oppression keeps women around the world enslaved and unable to better their lives for themselves, their children, and their communities. Which is why Kristof and WuDunn take us on a whirlwind trip around the world—to introduce us to some of the women they encountered writing this book.

Half the Sky focuses on three specific abuses against women: sex trafficking (including forced prostitution), gender-based violence, and maternal mortality. The authors concentrate on women who have endured-or are fighting against-these injustices. Yet, despite the atrocities Kristof and WuDunn recount (like acid attacks and genital cutting), each woman’s story ends on a high note. Take the story of Srey Rath for example. The introduction begins with her harrowing tale: as a 15-year old Cambodian girl she decides to go to Thailand to wash dishes to help her family pay the bills, only to end up in a brothel. Rath not only escaped the brothel where she was enslaved, but started several thriving businesses in Cambodia.

The same goes for Meena Hasina, whom we meet in chapter one. She is a former prostitute who endured beatings and threats, and still managed to rescue her daughter from a life of addiction and sexual slavery in the northern Indian state of Bihar, close to the Nepalese border. Even though Hasina was threatened and ostracized by her community, she was reunited with her children through the organization Apne Aap Women Worldwide, and given a job as a community organizer. The organization, which fights slavery, also enrolled her children in boarding school.

But in reality, not all women’s lives have such a happy ending. In my own experience writing about women in Africa, I have come across a myriad of women who have suffered because of poverty, AIDS, genital mutilation, and gender inequality, and have not managed to come out the other side.

Take Mabel for example. Mabel was 12 when Liberia’s civil war erupted. After having witnessed rebel soldiers rape her mother, she decided to pick up a gun and—counter-intuitively—join the rebels herself, to protect herself and her mother against further rapes. Her belief was that if she carried a gun, she would have power too, just like the men who raped her. The plan backfired: instead of gaining their good graces, Mabel was raped by commanders within her own rebel group. One of these commanders was Charles, the man she later married and with whom she has several children, one who is wheelchair bound. Now that the war is over, Mabel, Charles, and a slew of the female fighters who fought under Mabel’s command, live in an abandoned government compound in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. Today, the couple and family shares their tiny aluminum and wood shack with three of Mabel's former fighters. Twenty of her other fighters live elsewhere in the compound, pooling money together when someone gets sick, hustling for food, and watching each others' children.

When I ask Mabel what she needs (as if one item will solve all her problems), she tells me she needs 2,500 Liberian dollars to help one of her former fighters who is in the hospital. She doesn't mention the fact that she—and her children—are hungry, or that the roof of her house is leaking because she doesn't have a tarpaulin to shield them from the elements. And she doesn't use the fact that her youngest child is in a wheelchair with a disability to try to squeeze money or sympathy from me. Instead, she asks me for money for her friend. When I ask why, her answer is simple: the girls depend on her; she is still their commander, war or no war.

There are programs for former female fighters in Liberia like Mabel. One program, THINK, provides a safe home for female ex-combatants, girls in trouble with the law, runaways, and victims of violence. The organization also provides education and training to 25 girls over the course of nine months. While in Liberia in 2007, I visited THINK (that is, Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness) and met Rosana Schaack, the executive director, who told me that both she and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf believe education is the answer to the manifold problems women face.

Kristof and WuDunn would agree. Education of women, along with microfinancing of entrepreneurial endeavors, are two of the solutions Half the Sky offers. (They offer others too, such as family planning, eradicating obstetric fistulas and lowering maternal mortality.)

Kristof and WuDunn also call for a full-scale effort, which includes men, to ensure women’s equality. After all, just because a woman is educated, it doesn’t mean she won’t be raped. And just because a woman starts a business, it doesn’t mean she won’t die in childbirth. While education is shown to reduce the number of children a woman has and increases opportunities outside of the home, men still need to be educated as to women’s value. And governments must also be on board to improve health care.

The problem is that, despite the best solutions, many pieces of the gender inequality puzzle are ignored. Human rights abuses against women, which are often committed in the name of culture and religion, are overlooked and go unpunished by multilateral institutions like the United Nations, whose only recourse against countries is the shame game. So, Greg Mortenson, who wrote the book Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2006) about his experience building schools in Afghanistan gets applauded, while at the same time we turn our heads when women in Afghanistan have their noses sliced off by their in-laws because they try to escape arranged marriages.

Shame is not enough. Governments must step up to tackle the challenges women in their countries face, like female genital mutilation, poor health care, lack of education, domestic violence and rape (to name but a few). Fantastic programs, like the Business Council for Peace, which works in Afghanistan and Rwanda to help women entrepreneurs expand their businesses, create employment and build peaceful communities. But giving women an education and a job without securing them from violence (both inside and outside their homes) is counterproductive.

Half the Sky, then, is not only a book, it’s a call to action to readers and organizations with power and resources to see that women’s lives are changed for the better. When I saw Kristof and WuDunn speak at the United Nations in New York City last year, they pointed out countless steps ordinary individuals could take to change women’s lives around the world. A number of these actions are enumerated in this work: give to Kiva or GlobalGiving, two people-to-people sites which link donors to individuals overseas who need funds; sponsor a woman or girl through Plan International, Women for Women International, or any number of organizations; sign up for email updates from Women’s eNews or other sites that distribute information about women; and join the CARE Action Network to speak out against poverty and injustice.

Kristof has devoted his life to writing stories about human rights abuses around the world, for which he has won two Pulitzer Prizes. Still, Half the Sky, filled with tales of women who have found light at the ends of very dark tunnels, comes across as woefully naïve. The reality, as Kristof and WuDunn well know, is that these happy endings are rare, and most of the world’s women die and suffer in silence without journalists to tell their story in a bestselling book.

At the same time, I do not fault the husband-and-wife team for trying to wash the medicine down with a spoonful of sugar. Half the Sky seems to have been written for the half of the American population that thinks stories about the oppression and suffering women face in most of the world is “news.” Kristof and WuDunn know that too many disheartening statistics and photographs of atrocities overwhelm readers and leave them feeling helpless. They avoid this pitfall by using their platform to tell stories about women who have made it through dark times, and the women and organizations who helped them along the way. Which provides readers with an optimism that supporting nongovernmental organizations doing amazing work and pushing for solutions to seemingly intractable problems can have real and positive impacts—one woman at a time.


After reading two recent books, Anne E. Kornblut’s Notes from the Cracked Ceiling and Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed, I began to wonder about what the equality gap between women in developed and developing countries means. Can American women celebrate how far we have come if half of the world’s women cannot appreciate those same gains?

I don’t know the answer, but I think the fact that Collins book specifically mentions “American” women in the title, signals to me that she realizes we have not been successful at exporting our brand of feminism to the rest of the world. Globally, we are still fighting cultural and religious oppression, which Kristof and WuDunn recognize affects a disproportionate number of Muslim women. And although American women are still struggling to fill CEO positions and to achieve equal pay for equal work, it is clear that women in other parts of the world are fighting for their lives.

The United States’ attempt at exporting democracy (though often violent and unwelcome) has made me wonder whether the U.S. can export feminism as well. I think Kristof and WuDunn would like to believe so. Ching Eikenberry, the strategic communication coordinator of USAID Afghanistan and the wife of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has tried. Speaking at The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit recently held in New York City, Eikenberry highlighted her experiences discussing the role of women with men in Afghanistan. Her suggestion to Afghani men: peer under your wife’s veil, look into her eyes, and see how beautiful she really is.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I only wish changing the opportunities for eliminating oppression of women in the world was really that easy.


April 15, 2010

frontispiece and illustration by Sarah D. Schulman.

Human Rights, Microfinance, NGO, Poverty, Women's Rights