Half the Sky tells a story and has a mission. Its Pulitzer-Prize-winning authors, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, don’t merely report on the neglect, abuse, torture, and enslavement of women across much of the globe; they aim to inspire readers to relieve the misery that millions of women suffer.

The authors, veteran journalists and a married couple, describe the tormented lives of women and girl children so graphically that the emotional distance usually produced by geography and statistics all but disappears. Kristof and WuDunn effectively use studies that demonstrate the widespread oppression of women, but it is their stories about individual women—their suffering and heroism in the face of unrelenting cruelty—that form the heart of this compelling book.

Half the Sky argues that the humane treatment of women is essential to the flourishing of any society. When women are freed from oppressive conditions, thanks to education and economic opportunities, they, their children, and their husbands prosper. But Kristof and WuDunn report that women often re-inforce and perpetuate the practices that victimize them—practices such as genital cutting, bride burning, honor killings, enslavement in sex work, beating as a matter of spousal or fraternal right, and confinement in the home. Their acknowledgment that these practices are culturally embedded presents the authors with a challenge. They must reject practices and cultural norms that injure women and children, but at the same time argue that local culture must be respected—or attempts to change practice will fail.

If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, footbinding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures.

Half the Sky does not offer theoretical arguments for this position. Rather, it relies on interviews with a number of women to illustrate how tolerance of certain cultural norms can be detrimental, even lethal, to women; how these practices deny women their inherent dignity; and how hard it is to challenge these norms.

Good intentions to assist cultural change have often produced unintended negative consequences. For example, proposed legislation in the United States banning imports from Bengali factories that employed children (almost exclusively girls) resulted in the girls being fired and many forced into prostitution. When the brothels were later closed, some of the girls eagerly returned to the sweatshops. But others found themselves on the street, with no means of support. This led some to suicide. Similar complexities surrounded the common-sense effort to provide free baby formula for new mothers in order to prevent the transmission of HIV through breastfeeding. The mothers rejected the formula when they realized it branded them as HIV-positive.

Half the Sky introduces the reader to a number of remarkable women. There is Srey Rath, who as a child was kidnapped, tortured, and enslaved in a brothel. When she sought help from the police, they had her sent to prison. And there is Mahabouba, a young woman injured while giving birth. She was subsequently banished to the countryside by her family and made the prey of hyenas. The authors’ recommendations for intervening in such cases range from the obvious to the subtle. For any culture to change, they argue, it must be accommodated even as it is being challenged. Kristof and WuDunn note, for example, that most efforts to eliminate female genital cutting have been ineffective because these efforts have been insensitive to the underlying culture and the reasons that mothers themselves would assist in the practice. Because of the close connection between genital cutting and marriageability, only a long-term strategy of community discussion that builds commitment to change within an entire village is effective. Efforts that encourage individual women to break with custom fail, as the families find later that they cannot find husbands for their daughters.

In the chapter “Family Planning and the ‘God Gulf,’” Kristof and WuDunn attempt to bridge the chasm between their own commitment to family-planning services and objections raised by religious conservatives, including Catholics and Pentecostals, to funding those services. They highlight the irreplaceable achievements of religious organizations (which provide 25 percent of AIDS funding for developing countries and have “saved lives in vast numbers by underwriting and operating clinics in some of the neediest parts of Africa and Asia”), but fault those who act to restrict public funding for contraception. They argue that contraceptives are preferable to abortion, and that contraception can also help limit the injuries sustained by young girls in childbirth.

Kristof and WuDunn place their hope for significant change in providing education and economic opportunities to women through microfinance initiatives. Education offers girls useful skills. Microfinance initiatives give women a chance to support themselves and improve the lives of their families.

Half the Sky is a treatise on the complexity of change and why many foreign interventions have proved so counterproductive. It ends with a clear prescription for making the future different by relying on local leadership, especially among women, to effect change. Native women have cultural knowledge that will make these efforts more successful.

What do the authors want their readers to do? Kristof and WuDunn argue that the developed world must refuse to turn its back on the suffering of these women and children and advocate for them as friends and neighbors. They recommend doing personal service abroad, under local auspices. And they suggest that readers write a check—several, in fact—to sponsor women and girls through organizations that have proved effective. That, at least, is simple.

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

Sandra H. Johnson, professor emerita of law and health-care ethics at St. Louis University, is acting dean of its law school.

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