Half the Sky doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't - the introduction tells you flat-out that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are out to convince you to help the world become a better place. By closing the gender gap in opportunity, safety, and social equality, their research suggests that all of humanity will benefit. They want you to educate yourself and invest your time, money and voting power into making changes. It reads like a primer on how to set up organizations that work, and a call-to-action for those of us fortunate enough to be born in lands of relative safety and security.
I consider myself reasonably well-informed on the subject of women's oppression, but this book showed me how much I still have to learn. It is full of interesting details and overwhelming facts. Did you know that iodine in a pregnant woman's diet could make a 10-point difference in that child's IQ? Did you know that there are more women trafficked into brothels every year than the number of slaves transported annually to the New World at the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade? The subject of women's oppression in developing countries is diverse and complicated, but Kristof and WuDunn seem to have delved personally into every major geographical area and topic of concern, and they have condensed their findings into a treatise on how the world could best work to solve these long-standing, seemingly hopeless issues.
Half the Sky is full of real people in developing countries who have been helped by ideas, dollars and efforts from people like you and me. The book identifies three top-tier issues (trafficking, maternal health and gender-based violence) and examines them in both close detail and world-wide scope - individuals and statistics are both used in an effort to bring human perspective to the scary numbers that can be difficult to internalize. There is also practical discussion of specific projects that work to solve these issues, with some investigation into why the good ones work and why the bad ones fail. The authors aren't afraid to criticize famous or prominent projects, or to give credit to otherwise disrespected institutions if they make positive differences for women.
The book is not the most exciting read, but the journalistic style lends credibility to the material. This is not a book you read on the beach; it is a book that you reference when you're trying to argue with your neighbor against cutting foreign aid. The personal anecdotes of both the authors and the women being interviewed help keep all that information relevant and interesting.
I like that they jump around both geographically and topically, from many parts of Africa, to the Middle East and Asia. The emphasis is on local involvement - and on how many different ways people are working to make a change for the better. The stories are told with humor, sensitivity and important detail, but I never felt like the authors were trying to manipulate the reader or over-dramatize the serious events of these women's lives. When the details are particularly brutal, they're conveyed in a matter-of-fact way, without melodrama. That's not to say that this book did not affect me emotionally, just that I appreciated that these women's stories were never sensationalized for dramatic effect.
Half the Sky is full of practical advice for the movement as a whole, as well as for individuals who wish to make sure their dollars are truly helpful on the other side - not just a way for us to feel like we're contributing, but a way to truly make a difference in the global struggle. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the issues at hand or find a way to help, and I think it should be required reading in high schools across the country.
This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the June 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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