Book Report: Half the Sky

Posted by Jennifer Essary on

I’ve been delaying writing this for probably two whole weeks now. Recently I read Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009). Its title comes from a Chinese proverb that says, “Women hold up half the sky.” As you read this, you’ll probably realize why it’s been difficult to write!

Did you know that the modern day sex slave trade (aka human trafficking) is bigger than the transatlantic slave trade was at it’s height in the 1790’s? More people are sold into brothels now than were sold onto plantations back then.

I am really glad I read this book, but it is hard to sum it up in this short space. (Trigger warning) The authors spout tons of statistics regarding heart-wrenching things like human trafficking, prostitution, maternal mortality, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and rape as a weapon of war, while simultaneously acknowledging that statistics alone don’t change hearts or minds but individual stories do. So along with the appalling statistics on these topics, they share wonderfully uplifting and (usually) encouraging stories from those they’ve encountered along the way.

Sometimes women die in childbirth because their families can’t pay the $42 cost of c-section supplies. (Yes, you read that right. Forty-two dollars - less than the cost of a new video game - can save two lives.) Sometimes they are seen as literal trash by the doctors who are able to care for them, so the doctor doesn’t/won’t care for them. “There is a strong correlation between countries where women are marginalized and countries with high maternal mortality. … Maternal mortality is an injustice that is tolerated because its victims are poor, rural women.”

It goes quite in-depth about the problem of fistulas, a repairable problem resulting from tearing in childbirth. It’s estimated that there are 30K-130K new cases of fistula in Africa each year and the surgery to fix it costs only $300. Yet instead of receiving treatment, many girls (usually only 15 or 16 years old) often find their lives destroyed through the course of events that follow. (I’m not sorry for not elaborating more on that here. It’s graphic and just too sad!)

The causes of the problems described in this book are innumerable but there seems to be one thing that could help solve a lot of it, and that thing is education for girls. As it turns out, girls staying in school longer is key to having less early pregnancies (which equates to less risk of dying in or complications from childbirth, as many of them are so young that their bodies are not yet physically mature enough to safely birth babies), less unwanted pregnancies, and more awareness of building a better life (through education, starting a business, etc.).

There’s a chapter titled Investing in Education and another called Microcredit: The Financial Revolution. Both of these delve into how these initiatives help women and children, and create better communities.

The authors point out a lesson learned: “Even when a social problem is so vast as to be insoluble in its entirety, it’s still worth mitigating. We may not succeed in educating ALL the girls in poor countries, or in preventing ALL women from dying in childbirth, or in saving ALL the girls who are imprisoned in brothels.” But it can make a big difference to one person who was helped.

At the end, in a section titled “What You Can Do,” the authors provide a long list of organizations that specialize in supporting women in developing countries. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I’m excited to do more research into them and learn about what they do. They also list four action steps you can do in the next ten minutes to help bring change to those who need it most.

On a more lighthearted note, I have to commend these authors for their dedication page, in which they dedicate the book to their three children, thank them for enduring less cheering at their soccer games (presumably because they were busy writing a book), and then give the best compliment I’ve ever heard: “You’re wonderful kids to be arrested with!” I hope I can say the same about my own children someday.

Although this was difficult to read and even more difficult to write about, I’m glad I read this book. It’s broad overview of the many issues facing women in developing countries help me keep all my reasons for supporting women in these situations in the front of my mind. That includes buying products from artisans to help them avoid having to turn to a more desperate way to make money as well as supporting organizations on the ground who are helping women escape and recover from awful situations and circumstances.


May we never tire of doing good in the world!