Half the Sky Summary

Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky

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Half the Sky Summary

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In their nonfiction book Half the Sky, husband-wife journalist team Kristof and WuDunn recount the lessons learned through their years of investigatory work on the lives and struggles of women. They explore the many ways women and girls are mistreated across the world, including honor killings, prostitution, childbirth mortality rates, and unequal access to education and financial success. Kristof and WuDunn believe that the oppression of women is the modern era’s greatest moral challenge.

Half the Sky begins with a look at forced prostitution of women, which they call twenty-first century slavery. Through the story of Meena, an Indian sex slave first sold at age twelve, they show the health risks these women face daily, such as HIV and STDs. They estimate that 3 million women work as prostitutes, which really means sexual slavery in communities devoid of other options. They acknowledge the difficulty in fighting this, as others in the western world deem prostitution a victimless crime, and champion the rights of women to engage in “sex work.” Though legalization of prostitution could make conditions safer, it does not slow the rate of domestically and internationally trafficked women, who are working against their will. Rescuing women from these situations is often complicated.

Next, the authors turn their focus towards domestic violence, something which affects a third of women worldwide. Domestic violence often coincides with sexual assault, and the authors turn to several case studies—an Ethiopian girl who brought her case to court against all odds, a Punjabi woman who was gang raped and refused to commit suicide, as was the norm—to illustrate both the pervasiveness of rape and the unexpected resilience of survivors. They explore rape as a tool of war, such as in Darfur and the Balkans, and as an impetus for so-called honor killings perpetrated on a girl by her own family to reclaim the family’s “honor.”

In the next section, the book explores the high rates of childbed mortality. Though this may seem like a cruelty of nature, not humankind, the authors posit that modern women die in childbirth because of cultural, national, and international indifference to their lives. Girls in Ethiopia are sold as wives to polygamous men, often working through their pregnancies and abused by older wives. Women in Sierra Leone are debilitated by preventable conditions such as fistulas and are shunned by their communities. They detail the story of Prudence, a woman they met while visiting Cameroon. Prudence was nearly denied an emergency C-section because she lacked the $100 payment, which the authors covered. Yet, Prudence died three days after her surgery, anyway, due to poor facility conditions. The authors provide historical context for the indifference to suffering mothers, noting that many believed that pain during birth was necessary—women were meant to suffer. In a similar vein, many believed, and many still believe, that women have no right to control their pregnancies through birth control or abortions. When Christian, Republican presidents threatened to end foreign medical funding if abortions were available, the countries in need agreed to the terms. This led to a rise in unwanted pregnancies, illegal, unsafe abortions, and the deaths of women and girls. Kristof and WuDunn believe that access to contraceptives is a necessity that too many women lack, and that allowing women to regulate the number and spacing of their pregnancies will give rise to better standards of living for both mother and child. They condemn religious organizations for preaching against condom usage in Africa, thereby raising the rate of HIV/AIDS transmission. They caution against declaring any religion, whether it is Christianity or Islam, as inherently misogynistic, but do acknowledge the current high levels of gender-based violence in Muslim counties. They note that most holy books contain misogyny, but the true indicator of misogynistic violence is an overpopulation of young men.

The topic turns to women’s education. Kristof recounts a story in which his profile on a brilliant but poor Chinese girl led to a generous reader’s funding of that girl’s education. As a result of this windfall, the girl eventually graduated from accounting school, landed a high-paying job, and bought her parents a house. She also covered tuition for other local girls. Through this story, the authors show the effect one girl’s education can have on a community. This is rare, though, as women are chronically undereducated, and poor girls even more so. Educated girls are less likely to marry young and to live in poverty, though often poverty is the very reason they remain uneducated. Kristof and WuDunn believe that educated women enhance the entire community’s standing, and education includes financial literacy. They propose microfinancing—small loans for those without access to banks—as a way for women to start businesses and grow their own income. Microfinance is not a miracle worker—it fails in places with high childbirth mortality, for instance, but it puts financial matters in the hands of women, who then spread those earnings throughout their communities, hiring other women and purchasing goods.

The book concludes with Kristof and WuDunn noting that movements to improve women’s lives worldwide are most successful when they begin at a grassroots level, involving the women themselves, rather than paternalistic, Western interference. But, the authors note, there is much that readers can do to support the rights of women all over the world. First, we must stop thinking of rape and sex trafficking as women’s issues—they are human rights issues and impact everyone. Second, we can support organizations that work at the grassroots level with local women at the helm. Third, we must approach these issues like the civil rights issues they are. They are not less important than others because they primarily effect women, and should treated like the anti-slavery movements of the 19th century. Once we focus on maternal mortality, sexual violence, and human trafficking, we will effect true change.