Book Review: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Half Sky

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

How can privileged women best help women who suffer some of the worst forms of oppression?

By Kathleen Sheldon

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have received much positive feedback for Half the Sky, their study of women’s oppression around the world.Though their title suggests an international focus, what they put forward is more bifurcated.The oppressed women are primarily based in what used to be called the Third World, and their oppression is most memorably a particular kind of physical suffering, such as sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, rape and “honor” killings in the wars in the Congo, Darfur, and Iraq, and the prevalence of fistula and childbirth-related mortality in Africa.The authors also discuss micro-financing, education, and attitudes toward women in Islam, but those sections are not the heart of the book.The structure of the book fosters a problematic division, as they present a series of situations where women suffer because they are women, and each story is paired with an account of assistance, most of which feature women from the First World – usually white, well-to-do, and deeply concerned about women – developing a project, raising funds, or otherwise making a connection with impoverished women in distant lands.

I have a lot of concerns about the way the stories are presented, but I find that it is extremely difficult to write about those concerns without sounding like I am taking a politically correct stance to critique a lot of important and often effective work being done to improve women’s lives.So I want to make it clear right at the beginning that I am not opposed to the charitable work that is being done by so many good people.And I do not want to suggest that the book is a Pollyanna-style discussion of people doing good works.Several stories do not have happy endings, including some that feature Kristof and WuDunn’s own efforts to save girls and women from sexual slavery.

What I missed throughout the book was an understanding of the wider context of women’s oppression.The idea of patriarchy – or patriarchies – was absent.I was also concerned by the absence of stories of women’s oppression in North America and Europe.The authors dismiss this factor in the introduction, writing that “discrimination in wealthy countries is often a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss” (p. xv).Certainly conditions are much worse in the poor nations of the world, but I felt their statement was very cavalier in dismissing the real (and yes, at times lethal) oppression that western women face.

The organization of the book allows a North American woman to hold onto her own ideas of privilege and to choose a project (from the list helpfully found at the back of the book) to which she could donate funds and assuage her guilt for living the good life.I am not entirely critical of these actions.I have contributed to some of those organizations myself over the years, and I agree that they can make crucial interventions into women’s lives.But the book contains internal contradictions about the role of women in the world and about the best way forward to ending some of the worst abuses.Although they list groups that have important projects, in the text they usually profile the individual woman (and occasional man or child) who founded the organization, intensifying an impression of individual rather than collective effort.They highlight those they call “social entrepreneurs,” people who take the initiative to develop programs that target needy and oppressed people.

A major problem is the way that Kristof and WuDunn position legal improvements in opposition to the kind of direct support for change that they document.They specifically argue against working to change laws, and say that instead activists should be working to change reality.For instance, they state that, “In poor countries, the law is often irrelevant, particularly outside the capital.Our focus has to be on changing reality, not changing laws” (p. 32).But why are these two approaches presented as an either-or choice?If someone is willing to make a monthly donation to partner with a Congolese woman who is sponsored by Women for Women International, why should that preclude that donor from also working to change American policies that restrict international aid related to reproductive rights?Kristof and WuDunn discuss that issue in a section about American abortion politics, where they refer to the negative impact of the anti-abortion forces on restricting access to information on reproduction generally in international development NGOs.But they state that, “Each side has the best of intentions” (p.132, repeated almost verbatim on p. 134). I simply do not agree with this statement.Those who oppose a woman’s right to choose (that is, her right to control her own body and reproductive decisions) do not trust women and are interested primarily in controlling women.

In fact, the authors themselves almost immediately follow the statement about changing reality with a vignette about brothels in Cambodia. In the Cambodian story, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2000 that required the State Department to collect statistics about human trafficking. That data, published annually in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, brought greater attention to girls’ sexual slavery, and one result was that the Cambodian police began to crack down on the sexual enslavement of underage girls (pp. 32-33). In that case, as related by the authors, an American law had a direct positive impace on Cambodian girls.

Kristof and WuDunn make the same anti-legal-change claim some pages later, when they highlight Equality Now, a group based in the United States that organizes letter-writing campaigns to draw attention to women facing unjust attacks.The example in the book concerns an Ethiopian girl who refused to marry the man who kidnapped and raped her, actions that usually forced the shamed girl to marry her attacker.Equality Now supporters wrote letters demanding that the Ethiopian legal code be changed to ensure that a man would be liable for rape charges even if his victim agreed to marry him.The letter writers were able to do little to support the individual woman in this case, but they did have an incremental impact on the legal and social climate in Ethiopia.Why disparage legal strategies?Legal change may not be as glamorous or as personal, but it can have a long term impact, and can also enhance the ability of concerned people to assist individual women in the short term.

But the issue is larger. As individuals who are concerned about oppression, we can act to help individual women around the world through the kinds of projects profiled here – who would not want to support a hospital in Somalia that specializes in fistula repair?But as individuals we can also contribute to long term improvements, for instance, by working to limit the influence of anti-abortion activists who successfully blocked funding for any agency that might mention the word abortion.Both charitable and political actions must be undertaken.Charitable donations can help women this year, women who are suffering horribly because widespread social and political disregard for women means that they do not have access to proper prenatal care and childbirth support.But the political work can have far-reaching consequences by changing the way that governments work and by introducing training and education that could eventually improve the access to prenatal care, to family planning information, and to necessary medical attention for women giving birth.

Charity alone will never be enough.There will continue to be an unending need, unless attention is given to changing and eventually eliminating the structures that uphold the continuation of class, gender, and racial disparities.And charity will always be unpredictable, based on fickle individual (and sometimes corporate) interests.
Women cannot rely on that as a permanent source of funding and support.

In the short term it is important to donate money and time to projects that will help individual women enjoy improvements in their living situations.Kristof and WuDunn argue that such projects are the basis for long term economic and social change, that the best way to bring about change is through supporting social entrepreneurial efforts.I believe that is a limited approach, and that we must have a broader vision of deep-seated social change which involves not only changing laws but changing politics.We may not be able to completely end patriarchy, but with that as a goal we can make real progress to improving lives everywhere.

It is ironic that Kristof and WuDunn have chosen “Half the Sky” as their title.Taken from the slogan, “Women hold up half the sky” (cited as a Chinese proverb at the beginning of the book), it was popularized by Mao Zedong as part of the Chinese Communist effort to effect grand changes in Chinese society, to undercut traditional and legal restrictions on women, and to address some of the structural issues that contributed to women’s oppression.While the Chinese experiment in socialism was obviously deeply flawed and is not a model for the rest of the world, even Kristof and WuDunn admit that Chinese women have experienced the most rapid and far-reaching improvements in their lives in the past century (pp. 206-211).Those changes were not due to programs funded by “social entrepreneurs,” but were the result of a comprehensive revolution that involved sweeping changes in women’s legal rights, economic opportunities, and social expectations.

Kathleen Sheldon is an independent historian who has published on African women’s history. She has a research affiliation with the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, and can be reached at

6 Comments on Book Review: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

  1. Kathleen,
    Thank you for this important review. It is a useful corrective and I hope that it gets some wider coverage.
    I have have not yet read Kristof and WuDunn’s book. However, I have frequently read Kristof’s NYT columns and now I realize that he is often focused on individual “action” and donations (particularly by Western audiences), thereby neglecting the importance of building the larger structures for women’s empowerment and rights.
    Best wishes,
    Paula Tavrow (UCLA)

  2. Thanks, Kathie (and CIHA blog) for a well-informed review that not only helps understand the book better, but really provides an intellectual way to frame the challenges facing “development” projects (for men and women) whose short-comings are often excused with the platitude of “well-intentioned.”

  3. Thank you so much for articulating a critique that I fear has been missing from much of the celebration of this book! As an African woman I’m astounded that it has taken Americans to come in and tell the world what African women have been saying for generations! Why the selective hearing America?

  4. Thank you for the balanced review. I am from India. While the book captured certain essences of societal inequality, I felt it was appalling in some other aspects including (a) unjust criticisms of some real progress among red light areas in Kolkata, and (b) arrogant and brash journalism eg., as a verbal challenge to a naive cop who was just happy to engage a visitor in conversation, Nick suggests “…we should start kidnapping Indian middle-class girls and forcing them to work in brothels in the US!” p. 24. I think the book and its limelight serves as ‘comfort food’ for western audiences and Hollywood celebrities, but is a totally unfair portrayal of woman and societies in another Half of the sky. In my view, extremely cheap, predatorial journalism, written to win accolades, make careers and livelihoods than with a real intent to change the world.

  5. Thank you for this balanced critique! I was perplexed at reading this book at the mix between importance of cause and lack of rigour in approach. The writing itself is obviously aimed to younger audiences – so much the better if more read and get motivated to help improve women’s lives. But as you point out, the issue is much broader and more serious than the book dares to explore. Even worse! The authors discredit and downplay the feminist movement in the most intellectually-dishonest way imaginable.

  6. Thanks for this thought provoking critique of this work. I have never read anything by the author’s before but the critique coupled with the responses has made me want to.

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