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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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.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,135 words.)