Women Hold Up Half the Sky

I’ve frequently mentioned Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn here on my blog, but I haven’t ever given it a thorough review. This is because the first time I read it, I listened to it in my car, and I didn’t take notes, because, you know, I was driving safely. However, I recently reread the book with my Introduction to Women’s Studies class that I’m teaching this semester, and after speaking with my students about it and taking lots of notes, I’m ready to share more detail with you.


This book essentially covers the many horrific issues that face women around the globe—such as sex trafficking, maternal mortality, fistulas, rape, poverty, abuse, etc.—and then proffers solutions to these problems, through the work and experiences of many tried and true organizations and by ultimately arguing for education. The message of the importance of education is pervasive throughout the book, and I tend to agree that education can cure many, if not all, societal ills.

Part of the way Kristof and WuDunn present their information is through individual stories of the women they met and interviewed while traveling in Africa and Asia to uncover the still-pervasive problem of slavery, especially sex slavery for women and girls. While these stories are punctuated by statistics and academic studies, they argue that studies have equally shown that “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” (p. 99). This is the way they present their book, and it seems to work well in terms of causing the reader to want to act. I’m not sure how many of us have actually acted, but I do see myself, in the future, traveling to other countries and serving humanitarian missions for my church as a way of helping to give back and working against these problems that plague women and girls.

I was especially moved by the work of two middle-aged women through simply writing a letter when all $34 million allocated to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was cut. These two women, who at first worked separately, but who joined forces later on, wrote to their local papers asking 34 millions friends to send a dollar each to the U.S. Committee to the UNFPA, arguing that it was a “humanitarian issue, not a political one” (p. 147). People responded to this grassroots effort, and “bags of mail started piling up at UNFPA’s mail room” (p. 147). This is demonstrative of another way that we can get involved in humanitarian efforts, even if we can’t leave our homes or our children to do so. We can speak up.

The authors acknowledge how difficult it can be to engage in this sort of work without engaging in cultural imperialism. “While empowering women is critical to overcoming poverty, it represents a field of aid work that is particularly challenging in that it involves tinkering with the culture, religion, and family relations of a society that we often don’t fully understand” (p. 177). This is especially true of cultures where girls often quit attending school because of menstruation, or cultures that engage in female genital mutilation (circumcision). These are harmful traditions, but it may be difficult to convince the people practicing them to stop without offending them. However, Kristof and WuDunn argued, “If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them” (p. 207). They use the example of Chinese foot binding as a harmful tradition that has been stopped, and one that teaches “that we need not accept that discrimination is an intractable element of any society” (p. 207).

They also cite the historical abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. Britain knew slavery was wrong and had to stop, and over some sixty years, as a result, it “sacrificed an annual average of 1.8 percentage points of its GNP because of its moral commitment to ending slavery. . . . It was a heroic example of a nation placing its values above its interests” (p. 235). This passage made me wonder what we can do now to sacrifice in order to make the lives of others better worldwide. Half the Sky has plenty of examples. However, a classmate made a memorable comment to me a few semesters ago about this. I wondered in our discussion how we could give up privilege to help others. He astutely reminded me that we shouldn’t give up privilege, but instead use it to lift others up.

Much of the information in Half the Sky was overwhelming to my students, and I remember reading this the first time and thinking how great it was that Kristof had purchased a few of the girls from brothels to free them and how that would be such an easy thing to do. Buy them all back and set them free! However, the rest of that story showed just how difficult it can be for the girls, once kidnapped and drugged, to escape. They continue to be addicted to drugs and may return to the brothels for that reason. Others might return because of being rejected by their families, having been sold by family in the first place, or because they have children that they were forced to leave behind. It is hard to escape these situations.

However, the point that Kristof and WuDunn make is that something needs to be done and that doing nothing won’t solve these problems either. Toward the first part of the book, they share the story of a boy collecting starfish on the beach and throwing each one back into the ocean. A man sees his work and tells the boy that he’ll never make a difference. There are too many starfish. “The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. ‘It sure made a difference to that one,’ he said” (p. 45).

The final section is titled “What You Can Do.” They have many suggestions, but some of them on a governmental scale include the following.

“The first would be a $10 billion effort over five years to educate girls around the world and reduce the gender gap in education” (p. 246).

“The second initiate would be for the United States to sponsor a global drive to iodize salt in poor countries, to prevent tens of millions of children from losing approximately ten I. Q. points each as a result of iodine deficiency while their brains are still being formed in the uterus” (p. 247).

“The third initiative would be a twelve-year, $1.6 billion project to eradiate obstetric fistula, while laying the groundwork for a major international assault on maternal mortality” (p. 247).

They recognize that these three steps will not solve all of the world’s problems for women, but they will raise issues that need attention and would illustrate possible solutions to the problems. Our role can be to encourage legislators and those in authority to engage with these issues and find ways to support solutions to the problems. We can participate in making the world a better place by attempting to make a difference on a large scale, and we can certainly make a difference on a small scale just by being aware of these issues and resolving to do one or two things to make life better for just one person. I appreciated the section on microloans and just how much a tiny bit of capital can help one woman, her children, her extended family, and ultimately her community. I’m reminded of how one of the historical leaders of my church said that if he had to choose between educating his sons or his daughters, he would choose his daughters, as they influence generations to come.

With my daughters this summer, I plan to act based on the information that moved me in the book. However, one of my best students this semester wasn’t satisfied with the suggestions for action in Half the Sky. She did further research, and found this book.

half the sky 100 under 100

She requested that our university library order it, and when it came in, she brought it to me and showed me just how many cool things we can all do to actually make a difference, rather than depending on government programs or politicians to take the lead. I plan to purchase my own copy of this book soon, and my daughters and I will have plenty of ideas and projects to keep us busy this summer and engaged in our global community as citizens who care and who strive to make a difference, rather than striving for the perfect image, the largest/cleanest/fanciest home, or the newest car. I hope this will make an impact on others, but I mostly hope it impacts my children and that they learn the values that are most moral and important, those that revolve around helping and lifting others.