Excerpt from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Half the Sky

Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

By Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2009,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2010,
    320 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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Print Excerpt


"There were four of us who did that," she says."The others were too scared, because it was very rickety. I was scared, too, and I couldn't look down, but I was even more scared to stay.We thought that even if we died, it would be better than staying behind. If we stayed, we would die as well."

Once on the far balcony, the girls pounded on the window and woke the surprised tenant.They could hardly communicate with him because none of them spoke Malay, but the tenant let them into his apartment and then out its front door.The girls took the elevator down and wandered the silent streets until they found a police station and stepped inside.The police first tried to shoo them away, then arrested the girls for illegal immigration. Rath served a year in prison under Malaysia's tough anti-immigrant laws, and then she was supposed to be repatriated. She thought a Malaysian policeman was escorting her home when he drove her to the Thai border—but then he sold her to a trafficker, who peddled her to a Thai brothel.


Rath's saga offers a glimpse of the brutality inflicted routinely on women and girls in much of the world, a malignancy that is slowly gaining recognition as one of the paramount human rights problems of this century.

The issues involved, however, have barely registered on the global agenda. Indeed,when we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn't have imagined writing this book.We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation. It was difficult back then to envision the Council on Foreign Relations fretting about maternal mortality or female genital mutilation.Back then, the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for. We preferred to probe the recondite "serious issues."

So this book is the outgrowth of our own journey of awakening as we worked together as journalists for The New York Times. The
first milestone in that journey came in China. Sheryl is a Chinese-American who grew up in New York City, and Nicholas is an Oregonian who grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, Oregon. After we married, we moved to China, where seven months later we found ourselves standing on the edge of Tiananmen Square watching troops fire their automatic weapons at prodemocracy protesters. The massacre claimed between four hundred and eight hundred lives and transfixed the world. It was the human rights story of the year, and it seemed just about the most shocking violation imaginable.

Then, the following year, we came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that outlined a human rights violation that had claimed tens of thousands more lives.This study found that thirty-nine thousand baby girls die annually in China because parents don't give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive—and that is just in the first year of life. One Chinese family-planning official, Li Honggui, explained it this way: "If a boy gets sick, the parents may send him to the hospital at once. But if a girl gets sick, the parents may say to themselves, 'Well, let's see how she is tomorrow.' "The result is that as many infant girls die unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died in the one incident at Tiananmen. Those Chinese girls
never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.

A similar pattern emerged in other countries, particularly in South Asia and the Muslim world. In India, a "bride burning"—to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry—takes place approximately once every two hours, but these rarely constitute news. In the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Pakistan, five thousand women and girls have been doused in kerosene and set alight by family members or in-laws—or, perhaps worse, been seared with acid—for perceived disobedience just in the last nine years. Imagine the outcry if the Pakistani or Indian governments were burning women alive at those rates. Yet when the government is not directly involved, people shrug.

Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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