What Would the People of Earth be Without Women?

In honor of International Women’s Day our social media intern, Alyssa, reviews the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”

Half the Sky is written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first couple ever to win a Pulitzer Prize.  As Rohini Pande of Harvard Magazine puts it, this novel “is more than just journalism. It’s a tract that’s unashamedly intended to outline a problem and convince its readers to take action to solve it.” The problem outlined is the abuse, neglect, oppression and exploitation of women worldwide.  The manifestation of these range from maternal mortality to fistulas to sex trafficking to systemic rape to gendercide.

A few quotes to get you thinking…

“It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century.  More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”

“The equivalent of five jumbo jets’ worth of women die in labor each day, but the issue is almost never covered.”

“Women aged 15 through 45 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.”

What makes this book so important is that it not only presents problems but, more importantly, that it also presents solutions in an approachable manner. Each chapter is divided into two sections, the first detailing the horrors of a problem facing women and the second focusing on an individual or group whose actions have drastically improved the condition of women in regards to the problem.  For example, in the section discussing maternal mortality and fistulas, in addition to learning about the horrible realities of these issues, we also learn about such wonderful people as Edna Adan who after escaping from poverty and earning a successful position for the U.N. decided to return to her home country and open up a hospital to help service women who would otherwise remain almost entirely neglected.  Another wonderful woman is Dr. Catherine Hamlin who opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital with her late husband Reginald in Ethiopia which offers free fistula repair to women and girls.

Many of the issues facing women around the world I was vaguely aware of, others I was already passionate about, and some I didn’t know about at all.  However, no matter what the case was, Kristof and WuDunn always succeeded in teaching me something, whether it be about the issue itself or about a possible solution I had never considered.

An important fact about Half the Sky: It is a non-partisan book.  And by non-partisan I mean that Kristof and WuDunn point out the flaws of both political parties and emphasize how unproductive it is to involve politics in enacting justice.

One section that exemplifies this is the section on education.  Although I have always appreciated the power of an education, I never realized just how much impact it can have on a community. A few quotes on education…

“… the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education”

“‘Empowering women begins with education,’ she said” [quoting Mahdere Paulos, the woman who runs the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association].

Although many of the solutions mentioned are important to consider, they might seem lofty for someone reading the book on their couch here in America.  But fear not, Kristof and WuDunn offer simple steps we can all take to make the world a better place. In addition to the final chapters of the book “What Can You Do” and “4 Steps You Can Take in the Next 10 Minutes”, measures for change we can accomplish are sprinkled throughout the novel.  For almost every solution they present, they explain what the cost would be and oftentimes it is much less that one would expect.  One part that stuck out to me was when they laid out the cost for de-worming kids in Africa to help keep them in school:

“‘The average American spends fifty dollars a year to deworm a dog; in Africa, you can deworm a child for fifty cents,’ says Peter Hotez of the Global Network for neglected Tropical Disease Control, a leader in the battle against worms.”

Amongst all these wonderful teachings and encouragements, however, I feel the most important lesson from Half the Sky is this:

“Women’s Rights are Human Rights”

I don’t meant to say that this book contains the answers to all of the world’s problems. I don’t even mean to say that I completely agree with everything Kristof and WuDunn wrote.  For example, though America is mentioned briefly as a contributor to these issues, the blame is generally placed on developing countries.  Although there may be a stronger presence of these issues in developing nations, we should not get off scot-free. A larger focus could have been placed on our indirect and direct relationships alike with the exploitation of women, primarily in the areas of slave labor and sex trafficking.

However, this book did get me started.  It opened the door to my desire for change and curiosity about how to enact this change.

Mark Twain’s response to the question posed in the title of this blog: “Scarce…mighty scarce”.  Although this is both funny and true, in honor of International Women’s Day I ask you to consider some other implications of a world where women-or, in other terms, half the world’s population-remain an untapped, exploited, and oppressed resource.


Half the Sky Movement


Bonnie’s Books

Harvard Magazine

On the Issues