Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: Half the Sky

I first heard about Half the Sky when I read Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World by Lisa Bloom. I had my issues with Think (read my not so thorough review here) but I will forever be indebted to that book for introducing me to Half the Sky by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (who also happen to be married).

The subtitle of the book is Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and it could easily be regarded as a book about "women's issues." The authors, however, point out that the matters addressed in the book deal with basic human rights and are no more "women's issues" than slavery was a "black issue." Rather, they are problems that the entire human race should be concerned about and actively seeking to correct.

The book focuses on three particular areas of abuse: sex slavery, gender-based violence (such as mass rape and genital cutting), and maternal mortality.

Before I go any further, I'd like to applaud the authors for their careful research and writing. The tone of the book is in no way derogatory towards men (and in fact, they admit that in many cases, women are perpetrating these abuses against other women, especially in the case of genital cutting), and strives to lay out the facts without overselling the issue because "there's nothing to be gained from exaggeration."

I was flabbergasted, appalled, inspired, and intrigued during my reading of Half the Sky and I have tons of sticky notes in the margins to show for it. I'd like to record some of my thoughts and notes here for my own memory. Hopefully some of you will read this moving book yourself and make your own notes.

1. Sex slavery

"Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself. " -Abraham Lincoln

This portion of the book seeks to explain sex slavery, also known as sex trafficking, though trafficking technically refers to people being taken across an international border against their will. In reality, girls sold into sex slavery are often slaves in their own country. Apparently, what often happens is a young girl will seek work to help her impoverished family and will be promised a job such as selling mangoes in a distant city. She will then be taken to a brothel instead, where she is sold for a price. At the brothel, she will be beaten and raped into submission until she no longer tries to escape. Some girls are broken down enough that they may even seem to remain at the brothel willingly, though they are almost certainly operating under fear and manipulation. Others repeatedly try to escape and are repeatedly beaten. Pimps don't like to kill the prostitutes because they bring in the money, but occasionally they do murder a girl as a lesson to the others.

The girls are usually quite young, as virgins and young girls are more "desirable" and bring in more money to the pimp. As the girls get older and sink deeper into the twisted world of sex slavery, some of them even become the enforcers of the brothel, beating younger girls who are not complying with demands. Since condoms are rarely used, many girls get pregnant and their kids are often made into servants until they are old enough to be prostituted themselves. It is a sick and heartbreaking cycle.

Apparently countries that are especially conservative, like India, Pakistan, and Iran have a disproportionate number of enslaved prostitutes. To quote the book, "the implicit social contract is that upper-class girls will keep their virtue, while young men will find satisfaction in the brothels." Because the prostitutes themselves are low-caste peasants, the societies are not concerned with these girls having premarital sex.

While some anti-trafficking activists estimate there to be 27 million enslaved girls and women around the world, the authors give a much more conservative estimate of 3 million. Either way, there are certainly more slaves sold into brothels today than there were shipped across the Atlantic (though the earth's population is of  course larger now).

The number of suffering, enslaved women is staggering and the idea of correcting this huge problem can be overwhelming to say the least. Entire societies need to change their minds about what is acceptable. But I love the authors' advice at the end of this section: just because you can't help everyone doesn't mean you shouldn't help anyone.

2. Gender-based violence

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to become a women's self-defense instructor, through a program called Rape Aggression Defense (RAD). Through this program, I learned something quite poignant: rape is not a crime of sex; it is a crime of power. This distinction is abundantly evident in places such as the eastern Congo, where militias, not willing to accept the risks of fighting other gunmen, brutally rape civilians instead. This tactic is cheaper, less messy (fewer corpses to deal with), and just as effective at terrorizing populations. The victims are so young (one victim mentioned in the book was only 3) and the rapes so incredibly violent, it is almost unimaginable.

Unfortunately, the Congo is not the only place where this is happening. To quote the authors, "a United Nations report claims that 90 percent of girls and women over the age of three were sexually abused in parts of Liberia during civil war there." 90 percent! Over the age of THREE! A former UN force commander said, "it has probably become more dangerous to be a women than a soldier in an armed conflict."

3. Maternal mortality

What I gleaned from this section is that poverty, lack of education, and lack of access to health care are major factors in maternal mortality. However, what seems to be the underlying problem in many areas of the world is a general disregard for the sanctity of women's lives. This point is illustrated mostly through anecdotal evidence, but there are some interesting statistics as well. For instance, the rate at which US women died in childbirth dropped dramatically between the 1920s and 1940s, just at the time when women gained the right to vote. The authors suppose that once women were considered valuable to society, politicians suddenly found the incentive to direct resources to maternal health.

In some parts of the world, even the women who live through childbirth sometimes face life-threatening or at least life-changing complications. One of these is obstetric fistulas, which can occur when a woman has been in obstructed labor for a long time. In one story, a woman's baby was stuck in her birth canal for 4 DAYS. Obviously, the baby did not live through this experience, and the mother barely survived herself. She was left with a fistula (a hole between her anus and vagina) which meant that she leaked waste constantly. Though her family was sympathetic, they couldn't bear her awful smell, and so they built her a separate hut to live in. She lived in the hut alone, barely moving and never leaving. Her isolation and shame left her terribly depressed. She curled up into a fetal position and stayed there for 2 years, until the muscles in her legs had atrophied and her joints were permanently bent. Eventually, through much financial sacrifice on her family's part, the woman was able to make it to a fistula hospital, where her injuries were treated and she made a full recovery.

Admittedly, this book seems like a bit of a downer, but I loved the glimmers of hope that were included. Like, did you know that Rwanda has a higher percentage of female legislators than any other country in the world? Because of this, policies to empower women are being implemented and this country that is still recovering from a genocide is enjoying a rapidly growing economy.

And that's just the beginning. There are hundreds of women, most of whom were victims of slavery or violence themselves, that have founded hospitals and aid organizations to help the suffering women throughout the world. Their stories fill the pages of Half the Sky and I wouldn't do them justice by merely summarizing the work they've done.

Some of the organizations that impressed me most are:

HEAL Africa

New Light

American Assistance for Cambodia

Apne Aap

Fistula Foundation

I am so inspired by the stories of people who, with far fewer resources and far less education than myself, have managed to permanently and dramatically improve the lives of others. I want to be a part of that.


  1. This book sounds so awesome. I knew about the problems of fistulas because of reading Cutting for Stone, which is a fictional book. I love Nicholas Kristoff, and I find many of his NYT editorials very compelling.

  2. My sister was just visiting and she mentioned that she read Think and enjoyed it. I think I will have to get this book too!! I want to get back into reading! Thanks!