Half the Sky

by Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn

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What are five issues concerning women in developing countries as presented in Half the Sky?

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Five issues for women in developing countries that are discussed in Half the Sky are child sex trafficking, prostitution, rape, coerced marriage, and maternal mortality. Cases relating to the first two issues include those of Srey Rath and Meena Hasina. Usha Narayane spoke out against a gang of rapists, while Woineshet Zebene’s refusal to marry her rapist helped change a law. The authors explore reasons for Prudence Lemokouno’s death in childbirth.

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Among the many challenges that women face in less developed countries, sex trafficking of children is emphasized. Additionally, there is the closely related issue of prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and sexual assault; and numerous health-related issues, especially maternal mortality. Throughout the book, the authors use interviews with girls and women they met while conducting research, as well as information from family members of deceased females.

The book begins by exploring sex trafficking of minors, focusing on girls, and situates this problem within the larger issue of prostitution. Srey Rath of Cambodia was fifteen years old when she was forced into sex work after being deceived about other employment. Meena Hasina was about eight when she was kidnapped, raped, and put to work in a brothel, where she later bore two children before escaping.

Other aspects of gender-based violence that the book analyzes are rape and associated violent retaliation against women who report the crime. Usha Narayane of India is featured. She spoke out against a group of alleged rapists, who retaliated by threatening her; in turn, her actions led to the arrest and female vigilante killing of the primary suspect.

The relationship of marriage and sexual assault is addressed through the case of Woineshet Zebene of Ethiopia, who was raped at age thirteen by a man who expected to marry her. Marriage would have legally prevented her from charging him with rape, but her father not only blocked the marriage but successfully lobbied to have the law changed.

Among the many health issues that women face, high rates of maternal mortality are prevalent in many less developed countries. Women often die during pregnancy, in childbirth, and while the baby is very young. Infant mortality is often correspondingly high. The authors profile Prudence Lemokouno of Cameroon, who died while in labor for numerous reasons, including a doctor’s delay in performing a c-section.

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In Half the Sky, we meet women and girls from around the world. What concerns/issues of women did you notice in developing countries? How are their situations similar, despite the unique challenges that they face?

Half the Sky discusses several pressing issues facing women around the world. For instance, the book discusses sex trafficking in India and how it is contemporary slavery. Readers get to know Meena, who was kidnapped and trafficked around eight years old. Her story highlights how awful the world of sex trafficking is and underscores the dire need to bring global attention to this issue.

This book also discusses how rape has become endemic in many countries. An Ethiopian woman named Woineshet shares her story about growing up in a village in which kidnapping and raping girls is “tradition.” She was kidnapped at thirteen years old and escaped. She was recaptured, and her kidnapper forced her to go to court and attempted to bully her into telling the judge she wanted to marry him. She refused, but she faced judgment from her community. Her story highlights how little value is placed on women’s lives in some places. As Woineshet’s father says: “More weight is still given to the crime of stealing a thing than to the crime of stealing a person.”

Another issue the book discusses is how acid is much more likely to be thrown in women’s faces than men’s. Readers learn about women like Naeema Azar, a real estate agent from Pakistan whose ex-husband threw acid on her and blinded her. We also learn about how men use acid, like when Usha files a complaint with the police against Akku Yadav and he says: “I’ll throw acid on your face and you won’t be in a position to file any more complaints.”

The book also brings attention to the pressing issue of female infanticide—when mothers kill their own daughters. They typically do this because men have threatened to hurt them for having a girl. For example, readers learn about Shahnaz, a woman who poisoned her daughter because her husband threatened to divorce her for giving birth to a girl, and Pervenen, who poisoned her daughter because her father-in-law beat her for having a girl.

A fifth issue that the book discusses is female genital mutilation. Recall how we read about the story of Edna from Somaliland. When Edna was eight years old her mother had her circumcised without her permission. The idea behind it is to “reduce girl’s sexual desire, curb promiscuity, and ensure that daughters will be marriageable.” This issue shows how women’s bodies are so often controlled by other people and objectified for the sake of patriarchal traditions.

Despite the unique challenges these women face, all of the women in this book are impacted by patriarchal oppression. Their opportunities, their responsibilities, and their levels of safety are all shaped by the men in their societies. However, the women also share a sense of resilience that shows how strong women are.

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