FFTD Reviews: Half The Sky

‘What would men be without women? Scare, sir, mighty scarce.

Mark Twain


As editor of FFTD and someone with a deep rooted interest in women’s equality and a belief that economic empowerment, grass roots engagement and cultural sensitivity are key for not only the betterment of women but a global reduction in poverty, it was as high time I read Half the Sky.


Written by the world’s only Pulitzer Prize winning husband and wife, journalists Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half The Sky is unashamedly upfront about the problem women face in the developing world and wholly successful in convincing the reader it is their duty to take action.


The book is essentially a series of essays and anecdotes that combine to form two separate arguments. Firstly, that the oppression of women is still prolific, and largely under reported. Using uncomfortably honest accounts from women who have suffered as modern day slaves often in the sex industry WuDunn and Kristoff paint a worrying and deeply upsetting picture of life as a woman in the developing world. Sharing stories from women they met across the globe, from Srey Rath, a ‘self-confident’ Cambodian woman and now successful business owner who escaped a life of slavery and prostitution to 14-year-old Mahabouba Muhammad, from Ethiopia who found herself a virtual prisoner, raped by her “husband” and constantly beaten by his first wife. She became pregnant and ran away, but—as a pregnant and “married” woman—no relatives would help her and she was left to give birth alone. By the time help finally arrived, she had suffered obstructed labour (the baby died inside her) and internal injuries that left her doubly incontinent and unable to walk. Her relatives, fearing she was cursed, left her alone in a hut after removing the door, hoping hyenas would kill her. Only her indomitable will to live, and the fortuitous presence of a Western missionary in a nearby village, allowed her to survive.


Their tales outline clearly how women are chronically underinvested in, whether that’s education, food or healthcare – because to their societies they are inherently less valuable than men. Careful not to impose western stereotypes WuDunn and Kristoff admit that many of the tragedies these women experience, both oppressive and misogynistic, are often encouraged or supported by fellow women due to ingrained cultural norms – something that cannot be ignored when implementing development strategy if we want it to succeed.


As the book continues hope begins to make its way onto the pages. The authors argue that there are practical ways to aid women in often challenging environments. Their proposed solution – social entrepreneurs. Local women, empowered by their situation, creating grass roots movements established with a far greater understanding of the culture they live in than perhaps a western educated development strategist. They tell the story of Mukhtar Mai, in Pakistan, who was gang-raped and expected to commit suicide—but protested, instead. With the compensation she eventually received, she started her own school and social-welfare organizations and then started to speak out nationally and internationally against endemic violence against women in the country—often in a risky conflict with Pervez Musharraf’s government, which didn’t want its reputation sullied abroad. They write about Usha Narayane, who fought back against the gangsters who used rape to control her slum neighbourhood in India; Sunitha Krishnan, a literacy worker whose experience of rape at the hands of a group of men who objected to her organizing women in their village led her to found a group dedicated to opposing trafficking; and Edna Adan, who, against all odds, built a modern maternity hospital in Somaliland.


Finally, they outline the vital need to improve education for women and for initiatives that empower women financially. Women who are well-educated and who have an independent income naturally find a voice in the family and in democratic society. They gain the power to speak out and resist the injustice they see around them, or are suffering themselves. Whether a development professional, policy maker, feminist or an individual with little ties to the developing world this book is vital reading, both heart-breaking and eye opening, never has there been a book that that outlines more clearly the need for increased education, healthcare and economic empowerment nor demonstrates the strength women are capable of when faced with such adversity.

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