By Isobel Coleman

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. Knopf, 2009, 320 pp.

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Africa in August 2009, she went out of her way to meet with women's groups -- female farmers in Kenya, rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, microfinance entrepreneurs across the continent. In South Africa, she spent twice as long visiting a women's housing project near Cape Town as she did meeting with the country's president, Jacob Zuma. Some quietly sniped that Clinton was devaluing her office by meeting with so many grass-roots female activists; others applauded the fact that a U.S. secretary of state had made women's rights a critical foreign policy issue. Clinton defended her agenda, noting that such attention serves to "change the priorities" of governments.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's new book, Half the Sky, should convince any reader of why those priorities do, in fact, need to change. Kristof and WuDunn argue that "the brutality inflicted routinely on women and girls in much of the world" is "one of the paramount human rights problems of this century." Their statistics are numbing: every year, at least two million girls worldwide "disappear" due to gender discrimination. Given little societal value, girls are not vaccinated, not treated when they are sick, not educated, and often not even fed. Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by male violence than by war, cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined. More women have been killed by neglect and violence in the last 50 years than men have by all the wars of the twentieth century. The cost to the world is staggering -- not only in human terms but also in economic terms: lost IQ, lost GDP, cyclical poverty.

But Kristof and WuDunn do not simply fall into moral outrage. Instead, they acknowledge the difficulty of eliminating the deeply rooted social practices underlying gender discrimination, while also presenting a series of colorful vignettes that demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit. Many of the characters will be familiar to regular readers of Kristof's New York Times columns: for example, Srey Neth and Srey Momm, the young Cambodian girls Kristof bought from a brothel and set free (only to see Momm make her way back to prostitution); Mukhtar Mai, the illiterate Pakistani woman who was gang-raped but defied tradition by refusing to commit suicide and instead opened a local school for girls; and Mahabouba Muhammad, a young Ethiopian girl who was sold as a second wife to a 60-year-old man and who then suffered terrible fistula injuries when she tried to deliver a baby by herself in the bush (an obstetric fistula is a hole between a woman's birth canal and her internal organs caused by obstructed childbirth, and it often results in permanent incontinence; fistulas can also be caused by sexual violence).

The story of Muhammad -- like many of the stories in the book -- is one of a woman who is brutalized by a misogynistic culture but whose will to survive leads to greater societal good. After her fistula left her stinking of leaking waste, villagers took her to an exposed hut on the edge of town to be eaten by hyenas. She dragged herself to a hospital, where doctors cared for her injuries. (The World Health Organization estimates that there are about two million women with untreated fistula conditions worldwide -- most in sub-Saharan Africa -- many of whom could be treated with a relatively uncomplicated surgery that costs several hundred dollars.) At the hospital, Muhammad learned to read and write. She now works there as a nurse's aide, helping new patients who suffer from the same condition. Kristof and WuDunn see such local women -- with international women's groups providing critical sources of money and expertise -- as the backbone of an emerging global movement to "emancipate women and girls." Half the Sky is an unabashed call to support them: in other words, to get on the right side of history.


This movement has gained some influential supporters in recent years. By the early 1990s, development economists had produced a substantial body of research that quantified the economic benefits of empowering women. In particular, the funding of girls' education came to be seen as a highly effective way to improve economic growth and to overcome cyclical poverty. Educated women provide better nutrition, health care, and education to their families, in addition to having fewer children and lower rates of maternal mortality, than those women with little or no education. The result is a virtuous cycle for the entire community.

Swayed by such evidence, major development organizations, such as the World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and CARE, now target their resources toward women. Today, most microfinance organizations also explicitly focus on women -- not only because women are statistically more likely to be poor than men but also because women tend to use any marginal increases in their incomes to invest in their families' nutrition, health, and education.

Corporations, too, have realized the benefits of engaging women. The Nike Foundation funds projects that support adolescent girls; ExxonMobil has invested more than $20 million in its Women's Economic Opportunity Initiative. In 2008, Goldman Sachs launched one of the private sector's most ambitious initiatives: a $100 million commitment to provide 10,000 women in emerging economies, such as India and Nigeria, with a business education. The firm is not motivated by altruism alone: when Goldman's CEO and chair, Lloyd Blankfein, speaks about the program, he never fails to mention that the company's own research has shown that educating women leads to greater labor-force participation, higher productivity, and higher returns on investment. Put simply, directing resources to women is good for business. Around the world, many governments have similarly recognized that investing in the futures of women and girls makes good economic sense and have moved to close gender gaps in education, health and nutrition, and economic opportunity.

As the stories in Half the Sky make clear, however, this is a daunting task. In too many places -- particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia -- the oppression and marginalization of women lead not only to tragic human suffering but also to lost economic potential and greater instability and violence. In some instances, these problems continue to get worse: the globalization of trade and communication has created new demand and opened up new channels for sex trafficking, and it has spread contagious forms of violence against women. In the Middle East and South Asia, women deemed insufficiently conservative in their dress are attacked with acid. Across Africa, the use of mass rape as an instrument of war has jumped from one conflict to another.

Some countries have made explicit choices to unleash the productive capacity of women. Kristof and WuDunn point to China as one example. A century ago, China was a brutal a place to be a woman: foot binding, child marriage, and concubinage were all commonplace, and newborn girls were regularly left out to die. But for all his ruthlessness, Mao Zedong recognized, as one of his favored proverbs went, that "women hold up half the sky." Accordingly, he forced a more modern role for women on the country. Today, educated young women are powering the Chinese economic miracle by working in export-oriented factories and by raising a generation of Chinese children who will be better educated than their parents.

Rwanda is another example. The 1994 genocide killed off a disproportionate number of men, leaving the population 70 percent female. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, recognized that women would be critical to getting the country back on its feet. The country, as Kristof and WuDunn write, "was obliged to utilize women." Kagame supported a new constitution that reserved 30 percent of the parliamentary seats for women; he also appointed women to many high-level posts, including president of the supreme court, minister of education, and mayor of Kigali. Today, Rwanda is the only country in the world where women comprise a legislative majority -- 55 percent in the lower house. And as Kristof and WuDunn write, Rwanda "is also one of the least corrupt, fastest-growing, and best-governed countries in Africa." Several studies have shown that as the proportion of female representatives in a country's parliament rises, corruption falls -- even when controlling for other factors, such as income, education, and ethnic division.

It is worth noting, however, that much of the credit for Rwanda's success lies not with its high-profile reliance on women but with Kagame's own role as a benevolent dictator, which allows him to tightly manage much of the country's economic and political life. It is unclear if Rwanda's upward trajectory will continue after Kagame's rule. If it can, then Rwanda's carefully constructed political and economic dynamic could serve as a model for the many countries across the continent that are struggling with chronic corruption.

The cases of China and Rwanda show that the role of women in a society can change in a relatively short period of time. The problem with these models, however, is that in each case, gains for women were largely brought about by a brutal dislocation: Mao's Cultural Revolution in China and genocide in Rwanda. Neither is exactly an inspiration. Fortunately, there are other options. Although violent and turbulent change can offer a country the chance to carry out a swift and sweeping reassessment of its cultural values, the experience of the Asian economic powerhouses -- especially Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan -- shows that significant investments in education can change attitudes toward women almost as swiftly as large-scale social trauma.

But traditions die hard. In China, as Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge, the preference for boys remains so strong that millions of families choose to abort female fetuses -- reflecting an old prejudice that has been aided by new technology, in the form of cheap and widely available ultrasounds. A generation of Chinese boys is growing up in which many will have no hope of ever marrying -- a potentially dangerous skewing of the population that many sociological indicators suggest may lead to a rise in crime and other aggressive behavior, as well as future demand for trafficked girls.


At the peak of the slave trade in the 1780s, about 80,000 Africans were brought to the New World each year. Today, estimates by the U.S. State Department suggest that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across borders as bonded laborers or sex slaves each year, most of them women. In the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom pushed to end the slave trade -- an effort that Kristof and WuDunn hold up as the ideal model for a new movement to empower women. They cite the British abolitionist movement as "a singular, shining example of a people who accepted a substantial, sustained sacrifice of blood and treasure to improve the lives of fellow human beings living far away."

Indeed, over 60 years, the United Kingdom's commitment to abolishing the slave trade caused it to suffer the deaths of 5,000 soldiers, diplomatic conflict, and reduced GNP. One study Kristof and WuDunn quote suggests that the United Kingdom's commitment to ending the slave trade resulted in a loss of nearly two percentage points of GNP a year for 60 years. It is hard to imagine any country today making such an effort in order to empower women in faraway places. The United States' commitment to women's rights as a rationale for the continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan has hardly been sufficient to sustain public support for the war.

Unfortunately, the challenge of empowering women throughout the world has less in common with the challenge of ending the slave trade than with that of ending slavery itself. More than a century ago, the United Kingdom used its unrivaled control of the seas to end the trade in slaves, but the institution of slavery and the underlying racism that made it possible continued well into the twentieth century (Saudi Arabia abolished slavery only in 1962; Mauritania, in 1981).

The fundamental challenge, then, is cultural. Many people in the West too often ignore the problems confronting women in other parts of the world by dismissing, or even condoning, the oppressive practices there as those of a different culture. With its stories of brave women -- and men -- who are challenging local practices, Half the Sky forces the reader to rethink this position. Culture, in fact, is contested in every country, and societal norms are far from immutable.

As Kristof and WuDunn note, the push to reshape cultural attitudes and practices toward women must come from the developing world itself. Examples such as Edna Adan's maternity hospital in Somaliland and Sakena Yacoobi's school for girls in Afghanistan show such initiatives are happening. Many of the most powerful stories in Half the Sky are about the intrepid women and men who refuse to go along with tradition, sometimes risking their lives in the process. The most effective Western organizations are those that partner with local groups in their efforts to provide critical moral, financial, and technical support. Governments and individuals in the developed world can make their aid more efficient and effective by providing women with education, leadership training, access to income, and a political voice.

Cultural change, meanwhile, can come from some unlikely places. Kristof and WuDunn cite a study that examined what happened after a rural village in India received cable television. Local women gained autonomy: they became able to leave home without permission from men and to participate in household decisions, more likely to send their daughters to school, and less likely to say they preferred a son over a daughter. Just from people watching soap operas about "modern" families, attitudes changed.

At the end of this moving and thought-provoking book, Kristof and WuDunn call on Washington to focus on a few specific policies, most important, investing in girls' education. It will take many generations before all girls around the world are enrolled in school. In the book's final chapter, Kristof and WuDunn walk the reader through how he or she can shorten that process by becoming involved in organizations that support women's empowerment around the world. One can only hope that Half the Sky indeed sparks the global movement of which its authors dream.

Available at

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide


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