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Saving Half the World's Population
From Oppression to Opportunity

How many books make a significant difference in matters that concern everyone who lives on earth? You can probably count the titles on one hand. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, husband and wife, have certainly written such a book. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is the most important book that I have read since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. I am not alone in saying that this is the most significant book that I have ever reviewed.

Because it is necessary to summarize many of the unsettling examples in Kristof and WuDunn’s ground-breaking work, I’m going to quote profusely from the book itself. Then, I’ll explain why this information has been so frequently ignored. Finally, I will identify a number of the constructive suggestions the writers provide for changing a playing field that has always been deeply tilted against women.

Quoted below are a number of disturbing passages, a fraction of the incredible facts the book reveals:

About China: “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 of Tiananmen [Square].”

“The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”

“Some security experts [have] noted that the countries that nurture terrorists are disprorportionally those where women are marginalized. The reason there are so many Muslim terrorists, they argued, has little to do with the Koran but a great deal to do with the lack of robust female participation in the economy and society of many Islamic countries.”

“Half of the women in Sierra Leone endured sexual violence or the threat of it during the upheavals in that country, and a United Nations report claims that 90 percent of girls and women over the age of three were sexually abused in parts of Liberia during civil was there.”

“The equivalent of five jumbo jets’ worth of women die in labor each day, but the issue is almost never covered.”

“Another study found that each $1 million spent on condoms saved $466 million in AIDS-related costs.”

“[The] sex slave trade in the twenty-first century…is bigger than the transatlantic slave trade was in the nineteenth.”

These are all mind-blowing figures, coalescing around the on-going treatment of females around the world today, especially in developing countries. Honor killings, abortions of female fetuses (in favor of males), rape, sexual trafficking, genital mutilation, denial of contraceptives—these examples of inequality between men and women can be explained almost entirely by gender inequality. Many cultures place a higher value on boys than on girls, frequently refuse to educate girls at all, and deny them medical help. When girls are little older than babies (although these atrocities can happen to infants also), rape and sexual trafficking follow, often involving girls barely in their teens.

The authors themselves (both writers for the New York Times) confess to having ignored gender issues early in their careers. Foreign policy issues dictated their attention to other matters that at the time seemed more urgent. Together, they covered the Tiananmen Square massacre and won a Pulitzer for their work. The following year, they stumbled across a human rights study that noted that “thirty-nine thousand baby girls die annually in China” because of gender inequality in health care. Repeatedly, they note that statistics from disparate countries are rarely compiled to document a worldwide pattern of all-too-common atrocities against girls and women.

Ironically, the title of this book comes from statement made by Chairman Mao: “Women hold up half the sky.” China is used as the primary example of a country that has made major progress in “improving the status of women…. Over the past one hundred years, it has become—at least in the cities—one of the best places to grow up female. Urban Chinese men typically involve themselves more in household tasks like cooking and child care than most American men do.”

The discussion of China continues with the note that Sheryl WuDunn’s maternal grandmother grew up with her feet bound—a practice all but abolished in China today. If China was able to eliminate that terrible barrier for women progressing, certainly other cultures can also alter debilitating cultural practices. The authors provide a quick historical summary of how the British—especially William Wilberforce–changed world opinions about slavery during the nineteenth century in order to provide another example of social change. There’s even a challenge to cultural relativism: “If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color and gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures.”

Another passage provides a more urgent appeal: “Emancipation of women offers another dimension in which to tackle geopolitical challenges such as terrorism. In the aftermath of 9/ll, the United States tried to address terrorism concerns in Pakistan by transferring $10 billion in helicopters, guns, and military and economic support; in that period, the United States became steadily more unpopular in Pakistan, the Musharraf government less stable and extremists more popular. Imagine if we had used the money instead to promote education and microfinance in rural Pakistan, through Pakistani organizations. The result would likely have been greater popularity for the United States and greater involvement of women in society.”

The book provides dozens of mini-narratives of women (and occasionally men) —often in the countries themselves under discussion but also in the West—getting involved in global issues. Sometimes, it is as simple as high school students in the United States linking with women in need overseas, fundraising, and helping individual women with education, microfinance, and health. A number of these grass-roots organizations have subsequently developed a global reach. The mini-studies included throughout the book are inspiring but—and this is probably most important—also practical.

Kristof and WuDunn want to activate many more people. There’s a lengthy appendix at the end of the volume, listing organizations through which people can volunteer their time, send money, or help disseminate information about the basic needs of women around the world. Half the Sky is very much a how-to book: the writers have identified the glaring inequities between the lives of males and females in the developing world and their unbelievable economic and personal consequences. Then they have identified dozens of practical solutions (whether governments reappropriating money to other kinds of projects or individuals sending modest monthly checks to help girls in an African country to keep them going to school.) Everyone can do something to help. Will that happen? It’s somewhat doubtful, because too many Americans are interested only in themselves. They don’t want a penny of their taxes to be spent on someone else.

Half the Sky is a ground-breaking, eye-opening book, stunning in every sense. If it doesn’t change the way we see the magnitude of problems directly attributable to gender inequity and if it does not alter our responses to the appalling circumstances of most girls and women in the developing nations of the world, then we are simply endorsers of a no longer acceptable status quo. Kristof and WuDunn compel us to understand that the social, economic, and political consequences of gender discrimination are the issues of the twenty-first century. But they may be preaching to the choir.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Knopf, 294 pp., $27.95

CHARLES R. LARSON, CounterPunch’s Fiction Critic, is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.