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Half the Sky

Authors say elevating women is key to making progress on poverty

By Caley Moore

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
By Nicolas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
(Knopf) $34



Sunitha Krishnan was promoting literacy in an Indian village when a gang of men, indignant at her intrusion, raped her. Somehow undaunted, the young woman turned her attention to sex trafficking and now leads an organization that helps prostituted women rejoin society.

Krishnan’s is one of the many remarkable stories in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who shared a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In their new book (whose title draws on Mao’s aphorism “Women hold up half the sky”), the husband-and-wife team exposes the shattering effects of gender discrimination in the developing world.
Many of the women and girls profiled in the book have suffered harrowing experiences, from beatings by pimps to untreated fistulas after traumatic childbirths. But almost every personal tale ends in resiliency or healing; the point is not to overwhelm readers but inspire them to act.

While climate change is often described as this century’s crucial moral challenge, the defining issue for Kristof and WuDunn is “the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.” They urge readers not to be bystanders in the movement, and the evidence they present is powerful.

There’s a growing consensus in the development community that elevating women is key to making progress on poverty and even terrorism. Societies that treat women as equals tend to be more stable and prosperous than those that don’t. If you invest in girls and women, give them the opportunity to go to school and hold jobs, they’ll in turn give back to their families and communities, becoming agents of economic and social change.

The authors highlight several efforts that are working, most of them grassroots projects with local leadership. Westerners still have an important role to play, but it’s largely a supportive one; not “holding the microphone at the front of the rally but writing the checks and carrying the bags in the back.”

Feminists and conservative Christians feud about abortion, but over half a million women worldwide still die each year in childbirth. Kristof and WuDunn appeal to all of us to open our eyes and do something. “This is a story of transformation,” their introduction states. After reading Half the Sky, you will want to be part of that story. 


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