Mar 25, 2010

Half the Sky

In February, I picked up a copy of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I am a regular reader of Mr Kristof’s Op-Ed column in the NY Times, and often appreciate his insights into issues surrounding girl education, maternal mortality, and other such issues in the developing world.

Kristof and WuDunn highlight four main areas worthy of our attention: sex trafficking, maternal health, financial empowerment through microfinance, and education. This is no easy feat, and where other authors would have been inclined to throw in dramatic and overused statistics to make a more gripping story, this is not the case in Half the Sky. The book also explores the reasons for discriminatory practices including attitudes toward religion and traditional cultural beliefs.

These individual stories bring to life the struggles and courage of unforgettable women. The authors lend a credible voice to those often kept silent, and this is backed up by extensive research. The power in the writing is that while the stories are often profoundly sad, the authors are able to convey the sense of hope and the zeal that these women have mustered when given just a little help, support, and encouragement. Even more powerful is the persuasive case the authors make that if we can improve the lot of women, we are in effect "helping their families, their villages, and indeed, their entire countries."

This is not a book filled with platitudes for international NGOs or do-gooders that go in and proverbially “save the day” but rather tells of the ability for human triumph over adversity when brave men and women challenge the status quo and take it on themselves to make a difference where they can. These are the people leading the change to ensure that women everywhere have the opportunity to rise to their fullest potential and become a major presence in the global society.

A minor criticism I have of the book, is that some complex factors that exacerbate gender discrimination are not fully covered, and this somewhat narrows the scope of what can be done to help the women affected. The best example I can give is the situation described in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The book rightly calls attention to the violence faced by women there (mass rapes, torture, etc), and yet it fails to link this to the larger context of the struggles faced by the DRC. The violence in the Congo has its roots in its brutal colonial occupation, the fallout from the Rwanda genocide, and conflict-driven mineral trade.
Kristof and WuDunn are effective in conveying their central message – lifting women, lifts the world. 

This is a moving book, and I would recommend it to anyone who cares about human rights. It will leave you angry, sad and perhaps even overwhelmed but most importantly it will leave you inspired.


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