Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: Half the Sky by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky--Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
2008 by Knopf
294 pages--Goodreads

From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.

With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.

They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon. A Zimbabwean mother of five, counseled to return to school, earned her doctorate and became an expert on AIDS.

Through these stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part. Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population. Countries such as China have prospered precisely because they emancipated women and brought them into the formal economy. Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.

Deeply felt, pragmatic, and inspirational, Half the Sky is essential reading for every global citizen.

I read Half the Sky after watching the documentary of the same title on PBS a month or two ago.  It was a surprisingly compelling read.  The oppression of and violence toward women and the huge problems in the world are not subjects I really want to read about, but the Kristof and WuDunn spend the majority of the book on the stories of individual women.  I wanted to know how these stories resolved, so I rarely wanted to put the book down.  Half the Sky was a good mix of stories about individuals and information about organizations you can support financially or volunteer with.  The book definitely has an agenda and a bias, but I felt like they did a good job of addressing the issues with a decent amount of objectivity.   They represented the complexity of each issue, frankly acknowledging that there is no easy fix for any of these problems, but still make you feel able to help.  The book focused on sex slavery, education, maternal health, and violence against women.

The book was very effective in its progression.  We learn about a teenaged girl who is raped with a stick and develops a fistula (a hole in her vaginal canal into her rectum or bladder).  We dwell on that horribleness for a little while.  Then we learn that those kinds of injuries are sustained all the time in childbirth because mother's don't get the proper medical attention or even help from a trained midwife.  The injustice is heightened and we want to do something to change the situation.

In any book like this, we run into the conundrum of respecting other cultures' beliefs and practices while at the same time standing up for what is right.  They did a good job of, for the most part, describing things that most people would agree are not cultural things but universal human rights violation, such as the lack of prenatal care and medical services to lessen maternal mortality.  The  spent a small amount of time on female genital cutting and mentioned head scarves (head scarves are not inherently oppressive, but a matter of modesty), which are more culturally loaded.  Though one of authors is Chinese American, both authors are American, so the book is written from a Western perspective.   I don't think that discredits or invalidates the book.  Half the Sky is still draws awareness to the issues, even if the stories are told by someone outside the problem.

My main criticism of the book is that it ignores violence discrimination against women in the United States, where we are far more likely to be able to have an impact.  I understand that they wanted to focus on the developing world, but ignoring the domestic abuse that happens in our own neighborhoods felt like a gross oversight.  

Overall, it was a very good read.  I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.  Though the subject matter is disturbing, they did a good job of presenting it tastefully.

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