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Book Review | Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” is a fierce book. It demands the world to address what the authors label “our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world”.

The book is named after an ancient Chinese proverb – that women hold up half the sky.

The authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are both Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who through this amazing book meet extraordinary women across Asia and Africa. Among them is a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Dalit women, Indian untouchables, who swarmed, stabbed and emasculated a serial torturer and murderer — in a courtroom. Further north, Mukhtar Mai, the victim of a Pakistani gang-rape, did the unthinkable for a Muslim village woman.

The book explores the many ways women and girls are mistreated across the world, including honor killings, prostitution, childbirth mortality rates, and unequal access to education and financial success.

Kristof and WuDunn believe that the oppression of women is our greatest moral challenge. “Half the Sky” tackles atrocities and indignities from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, from obstetric fistulas to acid attacks, and absorbing the fusillade of horrors can feel like an assault of its own. But the poignant portraits of survivors humanize the issues, divulging facts that moral outrage might otherwise eclipse.

Speaking to the Guardian, WuDunn shared “When you hear that 60 to 100 million females are missing in the current population, we thought that number compares in the scope and size. And then you compare the slave trade at its peak in the 1780s, when there were 80,000 slaves transported from Africa to the New World, and you see there are now 10 times that amount of women trafficked across international borders, so you start to think you are talking about comparable weight.”

Written with honesty, anger and truth, the authors take us on a journey to demonstrate how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon.

The stories shared highlight the importance of gender equality in the fight against poverty. Women and girls hold so much untapped potential to truly transform communities and increase economic prosperity. As the Washington Post’s reviewer put it, this book is a “call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers”.

The book concludes with Kristof and WuDunn noting that movements to improve women’s lives worldwide are most successful when they begin at a grassroots level, involving the women themselves, rather than paternalistic, Western interference. But, the authors note, there is much that readers can do to support the rights of women all over the world. First, we must stop thinking of rape and sex trafficking as women’s issues—they are human rights issues and impact everyone. Second, we can support organizations that work at the grassroots level with local women at the helm. Third, we must approach these issues like the civil rights issues they are. They are not less important than others because they primarily effect women, and should treated like the anti-slavery movements of the 19th century. Once we focus on maternal mortality, sexual violence, and human trafficking, we will effect true change.

The book has given birth to a whole global half the sky movement, which embraces different platforms and technologies to ignite the change needed to put an end to the oppression of women and girls worldwide. This global movement brings together video, websites, games, blogs, and other educational tools raise awareness and provide concrete steps to combat injustice, discrimination and empower women.

Half the Sky is essential reading for everyone, especially those concerned with changing the world and promoting human rights!

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