Half the Sky Summary

Half the Sky is a nonfiction book that examines women’s oppression in the developing world.

  • The book’s authors, journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, devote significant portions of each chapter to telling real women’s stories. This inclusion of narrative helps the data about women’s lives worldwide feel real to readers.
  • Kristoff and WuDunn examine gendered violence, rape, sex trafficking, maternal mortality and morbidity, limited access to education, and other aspects of women’s experiences throughout the world.


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Last Updated on April 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135

In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, married Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn issue a global call to action against “the paramount moral challenge” of the century: gender inequality in the developing world.

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Kristof and WuDunn admit that they once considered women’s oppression to be little more than a “fringe issue.” It wasn’t until a year after they reported from Tiananmen Square, where several hundred protesters were massacred by government forces, that they came upon a demographic study that forced them to question their “journalistic priorities.” According to the research, “thirty-nine thousand baby girls die annually in China because parents don’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive.” It was the equivalent of the Tiananmen Square death toll “every week,” yet the news hadn’t “transfixed the world” as the massacre had. In fact, the study didn’t appear in the news at all.

Half the Sky is a work of narrative nonfiction intended to close the gap between research, reporting, and action. The book’s fourteen chapters are each subdivided into two sections. In the first section, Kristof and WuDunn expand upon one of their previously published New York Times features. Wary of evidence that suggests that people are less likely to help when overwhelmed by statistics, the authors use an individual woman’s story to personify one of three principal forms of abuse: “sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; [or] maternal mortality.” In the second section of each chapter, Kristof and WuDunn explain how “social entrepreneurs” have transformed small deeds into programs that make a big difference.

According to the US Department of State, “between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, 80 percent of them women and girls, mostly for sexual exploitation.” Srey Rath, a cheerful, extroverted teenager from rural Cambodia, was one of them. At fifteen, Rath and four friends traveled together to neighboring Thailand, where a jobs agent had found them temporary work in a restaurant. Once the girls were well across the Thai border, however, their agent transferred them to a group of gangsters who forced them onward into Malaysia. There, Rath and her friends were held captive in a brothel, where they were raped, drugged, and beaten.

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The United States’ global sex trafficking estimates suggest a shameful passivity, but the true extent is far worse. Millions more are excluded from the data because of a bureaucratic technicality: “trafficking” is a term applied only to those who cross an international border. It does not apply to Meena Hasina, who was not yet ten years old when she was stolen from her family, sold to a brothel owner, and raised in a communal home for prepubescent girls. Once she was “mature enough to attract customers” at the age of twelve, she too was raped, drugged, and beaten. But Meena was never smuggled beyond the Indian border, and so she was never truly “trafficked.”

Prior to meeting women like Rath and Meena, the authors believed that most sex workers entered the profession “opportunistically or out of economic desperation.” Now, they argue that the prevalence of trafficking has made prostitution indistinguishable from slavery. When a child is broken by torture, humiliation, and hopelessness, the appearance of voluntary participation cannot be considered consent. When a women escapes a brothel and discovers that social stigma and inadequate education leave her unable to return home or find an alternative job, she often returns to sex work. Her future has been constrained by a choice that someone else made.

Kristof and WuDunn believe that the most effective way to end forced prostitution is to disrupt its business model. They argue that women’s oppression is a natural consequence of obedience and docility. The victims are not to blame, they note, as there are “good practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed.” Nevertheless, changing gender-based discrimination and abuse within a culture will require women and girls to “scream and protest” despite threats to their safety. In places where brothel owners, soldiers, and suitors use rape as a weapon, the authors call upon the victims themselves to disarm it.

As Kristof and WuDunn transition into maternal health, it becomes evident that sexual violence intended to claim, demean, or dishonor women will also lead many to die during childbirth. In the developing world, inadequate perinatal care and a “cruelty of indifference” toward women’s health have resulted in astronomical rates of maternal morbidity and mortality (pregnancy-associated injury and pregnancy-associated death, respectively). One especially debilitating morbidity, obstetric fistula, has left more than three million women and girls incontinent. In Niger, the lifetime risk of dying during childbirth is 1 in 7. In the United States, it’s 1 in 4,800. In Ireland, it’s 1 in 47,600.

In Cameroon, Kristof doesn’t see a statistic—1 in 22 in Sub-Saharan Africa. He sees a woman named Prudence Lemokouno. Kristof and WuDunn attribute Prudence’s death to four major factors: biology, a lack of schooling, a lack of rural health systems, and a disregard for women. Biologically, 10 percent of women are anatomically incapable of delivering their babies vaginally, either because the pelvis is too narrow or because the infant’s head is too large. A lack of schooling is correlated with low contraceptive use and substandard health care. A lack of rural health systems creates situations where “overburdened,” compassion-fatigued doctors have neither the supplies nor the time to save everyone. Disregard for women diminishes the value of women’s lives. If Prudence had been a man, her family may have been more inclined to pay one hundred dollars for the emergency surgery needed to save her.

In a chapter titled “Is Islam Misogynistic?,” the authors pose a controversial question regarding the correlation between Islamic faith and female disempowerment. Historically, they argue that Islam is not supported by a more gender-divisive foundation than any other Abrahamic religion. When it emerged, Islamic law generally granted women more rights than Christian traditions allowed. Since then, however, views that were once progressive have remained “frozen in the world view of seventh-century Arabia.” Although careful to temper their criticism with examples of American violence, Kristof and WuDunn cite “security experts” and local anecdotes that attribute the rise of terrorism to the “[broad] marginalization of women” throughout the Middle East.

The problems the authors present are extensive, but the remedy is simple in theory: educating women will lead to empowerment, which will lead to economic development, which will lead to cultural shifts toward equality. An enduring transformation will require grassroots efforts by local advocates as well as international support. It will require people to understand the humanity of women who are suffering, even if they are a world away.

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Chapter Summaries