Half the Sky Introduction and Chapters 1–3 Summary
by Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn

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Introduction and Chapters 1–3 Summary


Srey Rath recounts her story dispassionately as a tropical rainstorm falls over the busy border town of Poipet, Cambodia. As she speaks, her fidgeting hands betray “only a hint of anxiety or trauma” in the otherwise confident teenager.

She was fifteen when she and her friends were tricked by a trafficker with a false job offer. They were peasant girls from rural Cambodia—pretty and poor—and their jobs agent claimed to have work for them in a restaurant in Thailand. Instead, they were taken farther, to the seemingly “safe and welcoming” Malaysian capital city, Kuala Lumpur. There, among signs they could not read and a language they could not speak, their new boss explained that they owed him a debt. After rapes, beatings, and death threats, Rath was forced to “simulate joy” as customers without condoms paid to have sex with her. She worked fifteen hours each day.

Eventually, she and three others were able to escape by crawling across an unsteady plank of wood balanced between the girls’ tenth-floor balcony and an adjacent building. When they asked for help at a police station, they were arrested for illegal immigration. Rath spent a year in a Malaysian prison before being driven to Thailand by an officer who she believed was taking her home. Instead, he sold her to another brothel.

Two months after the policeman betrayed her, Srey Rath escaped from the Thai brothel and traveled home to Cambodia. A social worker and aid organization provided the support and funding that enabled Rath to begin selling fruit from a cart in Poipet. She used her “good looks and outgoing personality,” as well as her entrepreneurial spirit, to expand from a small cart of merchandise to a stall. Now married with a young son, she is able to support her parents and sisters with the profits from her business.

Kristof and WuDunn consider Rath to be an example of the power of women and girls to transform the social and economic growth of a nation. The authors summarize research by development economists who conclude that when women thrive financially, they raise the standard of living not only for themselves but also for their families and communities. This “girl effect” on global poverty contributes to better nutrition, health, and education outcomes; greater economic productivity; and reduced rates of infant and maternal mortality.

Chapter 1

Meena Hasina was “eight or nine years old” when she was kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. She tells the authors that despite “merciless” beatings, she was able to fight off each of the initial customers who had paid for her virginity. Her resistance enraged the brothel’s owners, who fed her wine and raped her. When she awoke and realized what they had done, she considered herself “wasted” and began to comply with the customers’ demands. Before long, she became pregnant, and her two children were taken away to live with the brothel’s owner, Ainul Bibi.

Ainul Bibi participated in “intergenerational prostitution,” a practice where the children of prostitutes are raised to become prostitutes themselves. Meena, desperate to protect her children as they grew older, escaped to the local police station and begged for help. When corrupt officers returned her to the brothel, she knew she would be killed. She had no choice but to leave her children behind as she ran.

When she received news that her preteen daughter had been forced into prostitution, Meena reached out to Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti–sex slavery organization whose founder, Ruchira Gupta, was one of few people advocating for women in the region. Ruchira pressured the national police to raid Ainul Bibi’s brothel, the first raid ever to take place in the “impoverished northern Indian state of Bihar.” After a struggle, Meena’s daughter was rescued.

For each girl who is freed, countless others are left behind. While it is important to save those already enslaved, efforts to prevent the problem are...

(The entire section is 1,547 words.)