67 pages 2 hours read

Nicholas D. Kristof , Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


In their 2009 nonfiction book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, husband-and-wife journalist team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn document what they consider the paramount moral challenge of the 21st century: the oppression of women and girls. The book was an international bestseller, inspired a four-part PBS documentary of the same name, and launched the Half the Sky movement.

Like many journalists, when Kristof and WuDunn first began their careers, they didn’t consider gender inequality a significant issue. Their perspective began to shift as they uncovered data about the lives and struggles of women worldwide through their investigatory work. The authors have spent years studying gender inequality in countries all over the world (and have lived in many of them). Most stories they share in the book come from their own investigations, showing that they have the credibility to detail the problem of gender inequality in depth.

The book, whose title derives from an ancient Chinese proverb that translates as “women hold up half the sky,” meticulously documents some of the worst abuses, including sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality. Gender discrimination occurs in every country of the world; however, the authors focus on the Global South because they believe gender discrimination is especially lethal there compared to the Global North. While the book details difficult and violent topics, the authors remain hopeful. They illustrate how women and girls around the world are working to combat oppression—and how readers can help.

This guide references the paperback edition published by Vintage Books in 2010.

Content Warning: This guide describes sexual and gender-based violence, medical negligence, and abuse, reflecting the book’s content.


Most chapters of the book have two sections. The first section details specific stories that illustrate either a type of abuse or an obstacle to ending the abuse. The second section provides an example of a successful response to that obstacle or abuse. Half the Sky shares astounding data points, which are likely to incite moral outrage—but to prevent this outrage from creating a sense of hopelessness and instead inspire action, Kristof and WuDunn share the stories of survivors, which help humanize the horrors of global gender inequalities and show how the movement to free women and girls has measurable results.

Half the Sky begins with a look at human trafficking, which the authors consider a form of slavery. They use the stories of Srey Rath (Introduction), Meena Hasin (Chapter 1), Geeta Gosh, Srey Neth, Srey Momma (Chapter 2), and Usha Narayane and Sunitha Krishnan (Chapter 3) to demonstrate the challenges and opportunities associated with freeing women from trafficking. Most of the women come from marginalized communities and are uneducated. Traffickers intentionally seek women with these characteristics because society cares less about them than women from wealthier, more mainstream backgrounds.

Brutalizing women and girls in brothels helps make them compliant. Their lives are often in danger because of beatings, death threats from brothel owners, starvation, and the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Trafficking is a vicious cycle. Escaping it is difficult for women because of the stigma society attaches to it. Moreover, their children are often forced into the cycle. The authors estimate that millions of women work for human traffickers and are therefore devoid of freedom and other opportunities. While rescuing girls from these situations is typically difficult, the authors provide examples of success. Numerous grassroots organizations—many run by women and girls who were themselves caught in the cycle—help free women and girls. These grassroots efforts, coupled with donations from foreigners, provide support and training to help empower women and girls to start new lives.

Kristof and WuDunn next focus on gender-based violence, including rape as well as honor killings and honor rape. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss several case studies, including that of Woinshet Zebene, an Ethiopian girl who reported her rape as a crime and brought her case to court; Mukhtar Mai, a Punjabi teen who was gang-raped and refused death by suicide, as was the norm for poor girls in Pakistan; Du’a Aswad, a Kurdish girl killed by a mob of men for supposedly dishonoring her family; and Dina, a 17-year-old Congolese girl who experienced trauma in the form of a fistula after being raped by fighters. Each example illustrates the pervasiveness of gender-based violence. These women live under misogynistic and sexist cultural norms. While their fellow citizens revere sexual honor and thus think that these norms protect women, the reality is far darker. Such norms result in the worst abuses against women. Importantly, the authors document the resiliency of many of these women as well as the abuses. Despite the dangers to their own lives, many stood against oppressive cultural norms to fight for change.

In addition, the authors explore rape as a tool of war. While it occurs in many countries, it’s especially prevalent in the Congo. In fact, the UN considers the Congo to have the worst cases of sexual violence in the world. Fighters use rape to terrorize the families and communities of those they rape.

In the next section, the authors examine the high rates of maternal mortality. While biology plays a small role, the authors argue that more women die because of cultural, national, and international indifference. Women are often forced to work while pregnant and abused by their husband and his family. Without prenatal care or assistance during birth, many women face pregnancy complications—some of which are preventable, including fistulas. Rural areas tend to lack adequate healthcare, often because societies disregard rural and impoverished women, and this deficit results in an untold number of women dying. Political debates between religious conservatives and liberals over abortions and condom usage result in cuts to aid that provides women with healthcare access and saves lives. The authors posit that the overpopulation of men, rather than religion, might explain the high levels of gender-based violence in Muslim countries.

The authors firmly believe in education as the best antidote to poverty and the marginalization of women. They provide numerous examples of women and girls whose lives were transformed through education. In addition, Kristof and WuDunn illustrate how educating one girl has ripple effects throughout her family and community. A key component of education is financial literacy, which the authors explore in detail. They discuss how microfinancing can help women start businesses and gain a steady income. Research shows that when women control the purse strings, the ripple effect is more likely to spread to their families and communities (e.g., through hiring other women and purchasing goods).

Half the Sky is a call to action encouraging people from all backgrounds to join the movement to emancipate women and girls. The authors emphasize that existing solutions, many of which grassroots organizers created, just need amplification.

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