Half the Sky: turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide

Half the Sky: turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide

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By: Karrie Wong

The title of the book Half the Sky comes from the Chinese proverb “women hold up half the sky.” Yet in the world today, women bear a large proportion of the world’s poverty burden. The lack of access to health services, educational resources, and employment opportunities, as well as violence against women—which remains the most frequent form of human rights violations according to the United Nations—contribute to a vicious cycle of oppression against women.

What would the world be like if women from every walk of life are given an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential? In Half the Sky, the husband and wife journalist team Nickolas Kristof and Shannon WuDunn make a compelling case that such a world would be infinitely better than the one that we currently inhabit.

To begin their case, Kristoff and WuDunn give a series of personal, intimate portrayals of women who have been victims of oppression. Some of these women were taken from home and forced into unpaid prostitution; some were victims of extreme violence in the name of “family honour”; some were afflicted with obstetric fistula, a severe condition—often leading to a life time of abandonment by society—that is the result of difficult childbirth but is preventable by access to modern medical facilities. Many of these unsettling stories take the reader through an array of emotions, from disbelief to anger to sadness. Yet this is not a book about condemnation of wrong deeds by men. Rather than being a collection of sad stories that merely provide proof to the atrocities of which mankind is capable, the stories of these remarkable women are meant to serve as a testament to the human spirit and resilience. If these women could find the courage to not give up, how could the rest of the world not find the courage to act on their behalf?

How to act, though, and where to begin? Kristoff and WuDunn provide inspiring examples of people—regular folks such as teachers, students, housewives, and sometimes even previous victims—who, often with little more than a simple idea and strong compassion, decide to confront the challenge and to make a difference. At rare occasions, the difference that is made is at a global policy level affecting multitudes of women; more often than not, however, an organized effort may result in changes in one individual village or a single household. Kristoff and WuDunn argue that an effort as small as a bake sale, made from the bottom up, counts as much as top-down efforts from world leaders. It is difficult for the reader to disagree, given the authors’ accounts of efforts made by these various individuals from different walks of life.

Beyond the compelling stories that illustrate the issues and the heartfelt call for action to the reader, Half the Sky also confronts some of the barriers on the road to gender equality at the global scale. The roles of religion, culture, and tradition, as well as the complacent part played by many women themselves in perpetuating the oppression cycle are discussed with honesty and depth. Although the magnitude of the challenge—to stop the oppression of women around the world—is daunting, this book never loses a sense of hope and a positive outlook that differences can be made. Half the Sky is simply a book that should be read by all. Beyond the significance of its topic, it is, after all, a well-written, enjoyable and riveting work.

Rating: 4 stars