This review was contributed by Karin Tompkins
“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women,” a nonfiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is an eye-opening work about the consequences of discrimination against women in developing countries. The book’s message is simple: Empowerment of women in developing nations has a variety of implications, almost all of them beneficial to the growth of those countries’ infrastructures. Kristof and WuDunn introduce various ideas for stimulating the growth of emerging economies, such as microfinancing projects for women, using capitalism to elevate the status of women in traditionally oppressive countries, and even bribing families to keep their daughters in school. Although the journalists mainly discuss aid for women and girls, they provide mountains of evidence illustrating that the benefits of this aid extend to all world citizens.
The journalists use a formulaic yet effective model for introducing a variety of women’s rights issues, from sex trafficking to genital mutilation. First Kristof and WuDunn introduce a topic with an individual woman’s story of how she triumphed over hardship through empowerment and economic independence, then the authors use this storytelling as a transition into an in-depth discussion of the issue itself. Kristof and WuDunn make it clear that these issues are anything but black and white. Their discussion of sex trafficking alone, with its attention to the nebulous definition of exactly what type of behavior constitutes sex trafficking and how sexual slavery differs from other types of prostitution, may make the reader’s head spin, yet the authors’ detailed explanations expose just how difficult effecting change for women can be. They point out that a lack of understanding on the part of American charities has been a major hindrance in these organizations’ efforts to improve quality of life for women worldwide; “Half the Sky” assists the reader in untangling the Gordian knot of cultural factors that often impede attempts at foreign aid. Despite the sobering realities of these topics, Kristof and WuDunn maintain a feeling of hope throughout their book, even when they graphically expose truths that may be difficult for Western readers to acknowledge, such as the worldwide fistula epidemic among disadvantaged women. Their book strongly preserves and propagates the authors’ belief that once the citizens of countries with oppressive policies towards women become aware of the economic and social benefits that come with awarding basic rights to female citizens, the governments of these countries will acquiesce in allowing women access to education, health care and jobs.
“Half the Sky” proves a powerful and worthwhile literary pursuit for anyone, but would likely appeal especially to those interested in international relations and human rights. The book has a lengthy index in the back of charitable associations approved by the authors, with their encouragement that readers contribute time or money to their causes, enhancing the book and transforming it into a resource for the socially responsible, as well as a fascinating and informative read.