Learning to Speak Up. Kristof and WuDunn claim that one reason so many women are oppressed is the societal expectation for women to be docile. The authors make clear that they don’t blame the victims, since practical and cultural reasons motivate women to be complacent. But, the authors argue, as long as women and girls allow themselves to be abused, abuse will continue. Education can show girls that submissiveness isn’t inherent to being a woman.
Here, the authors are careful to avoid victim blaming, but in a more subtle way. Just as women must never be blamed for being raped, women must not be blamed for adhering to their cultures’ prescription of docility. They also point out the value of docility: it can protect women from violence, incentivizing them to be submissive. However, the authors argue, for women to advance, they must exercise agency by resisting cultural norms.
In the Indian slum of Kasturba Nagar, Usha Narayane, a young Dalit woman (the typically poor, darker-skinned Untouchable caste), showed what can happen when women self-advocate. Remarkably, Usha’s parents managed to send her and her siblings to university. Usha was visiting home one day when she encountered Akku Yadav.
Giving the reader the information about Usha’s caste is important for a non-Indian reader to understand the context of the Kasturba Nagar. Usha’s background and skin color inherently disadvantage her in India.
Akku Yadav, a higher-caste man, was the ruling mobster of Kasturba Nagar, a place virtually unprotected by law enforcement. His preferred way to terrorize the community was rape and sexual humiliation, such as raping a pregnant woman in public, or burning a naked man with cigarettes and forcing him to dance in front of his daughter. The more grotesque Akku Yadav’s crimes, the authors write, the more likely residents were to submit, especially since the stigma of rape discouraged survivors from telling others.
Akku Yadav’s crimes demonstrate the power of sexual shame in places like Kasturba Nagar. Because shame usually kept women from reporting their rape, it became a tool to both silence and terrorize them. In public rapes, the violence of sexual humiliation compounded the violence of the rape itself.
Akku Yadav didn’t target Usha’s family, because their education made them more likely to receive aid from police. One day, when Akku Yadav terrorized Usha’s neighbor, smashing furniture and threatening to kill the family, Usha reported him to the police. In retaliation, Akku Yadav and forty thugs surrounded her house with a bottle of acid to throw on her, demanding she withdraw the complaint. Usha barricaded the door and called the police, who never came, while Akku Yadav yelled lurid descriptions of how he would rape and kill her. Usha turned on the cooking gas and threatened to light a match if they broke into the house, blowing them all up.
That the Narayane family’s education shielded them from Akku Yadav shows the significance of education in India. Education brings more than economic opportunity–in societies of deep inequity, education becomes a status signal that is itself insurance against abuse and manipulation, a way to win the attention of corrupt officials. In their description of the scene with Akku Yadav, Kristof and WuDunn don’t sensationalize the violence. Readers will recognize this type of scene—a stand off between a mob of angry men and a heroic figure—from movies more than real life, but it’s important to recognize that this event actually happened, and so to sensationalize it might be disrespectful.
A crowd of Kasturba Nagar residents, who took pride in Usha’s schooling, were enraged on her behalf. They threw stones at Akku Yadav’s mob until it retreated, then burned down Akku Yadav’s house. The police then arrested him for his own protection, and a rigged bail hearing was held. Hundreds of women from Kasturba Nagar marched to the courtroom, where Akku Yadav mocked and threatened them. The women attacked, throwing chili pepper in the police officers’ faces and knifing Akku Yadav until he was killed, even slicing off his penis in retaliation for his having once cut off a woman’s breasts.
Kasturba Nagar’s residents owed their new sense of empowerment largely to Usha’s bravery. An extreme example, the events dramatize the power of a single self-assertive woman to influence hundreds of others. Similar to the scene at Usha’s house, the authors take pains to not sensationalize the violence in the courtroom. The women’s final act of cutting off Yadav’s penis shows just how much of his power was based on sexual violence, and by extension how sexual violence is in fact a strategy men use to gain and keep power.
Kasturba Nagar erupted in celebration. Although Usha wasn’t at the courtroom, she did organize the attack and was arrested. Enormous resistance from the women, however, led to Usha’s release. All the woman claimed responsibility, reasoning that if hundreds participated in Akku Yadav’s killing, they could not all be imprisoned. Now, the authors report, Usha is certain that Akku Yadav’s gang will try to retaliate, but says she isn’t worried. Usha became the hero of Kasturba Nagar, and the slum’s new beloved leader.
Solidarity between the women of Kasturba Nagar enabled Usha’s protection. Though this level of solidarity isn’t applicable to every situation, it does illustrate the power of individual women united for a cause. Usha’s story is exceptionally dramatic, but also a testament to the extreme reversal of power made possible by women who advocate for their own rights.
The authors write, “The saga of Kasturba Nagar, is an unsettling one, with no easy moral,” as they do not condone murder of anyone. But, the women of Kasturba Nagar found the voice to demand their own rights. It’s necessary, the authors argue, for outsiders to support such women who resist docility. The most effective tool of empowerment, though, is girls’ education. In the end, oppressed women and girls must take leadership in the human rights revolution.
The authors explicitly refrain from praising or romanticizing the murder of Akku Yadav, to make clear that the story’s most important lessons lie outside of violence. Most importantly, Usha’s empowerment inspired the empowerment of other women, who rejected codes of female docility. Moreover, the authors imply that Usha’s education increased her ability to self-advocate, and if more girls had educational opportunities, cases of such self-advocacy would multiply.
The New Abolitionists. Kristof and WuDunn introduce Zach Hunter in Atlanta, who was twelve when he heard that modern slavery existed, and started the organization Loose Change to Loosen Chains (LC2LC) to fundraise for modern slavery abolitionism. He belongs to the recent surge of social entrepreneurs. Bill Drayton explains social entrepreneurs as people who do not simply work within current aid or government bureaucracies, but create their own context by forming a new movement or initiative. From the 1700s to the 1980s, most economic growth was confined to half the world’s population, Drayton says, but now that transformation has extended to developing countries and change is happening rapidly.
Zach Hunter’s story juxtaposes Usha Narayane’s strikingly—he began his work as a seventh grader in Atlanta, a situation Western readers are much more likely to relate to than Usha’s Indian slum. This familiarity makes it more possible for readers to imagine themselves joining the abolitionist movement like Zach did. The fact that a person so far removed from a place like Kasturba Nagar can still play a role as social entrepreneur shows just how plausible globalization makes major contributions to progress.
Women’s emancipation would be much stronger, Kristof and WuDunn argue, were it backed by more social entrepreneurs. Advocacy beyond the UN and aid bureaucracies is necessary, they write—for instance, investment in charismatic leaders in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. would stimulate the movement. Today, women are often excluded from political office, but occupy most social entrepreneurial roles outside government, bringing extraordinary change worldwide.
Kristof and WuDunn’s emphasis on the ways women work outside government contexts illustrates how important ingenuity is in the movement for gender equity. Women have found their way into nontraditional positions of power, sometimes inventing those very contexts. At the same time, that such ingenuity is necessary points to how official paths of gaining power are often closed to women.
Sunitha Krishnan is one such social entrepreneur. A social worker in Hyderabad, India, she has a small stature and a detached manner when speaking about the abuses she underwent, the authors write. One day, a group of men, who opposed Sunitha’s literacy work in a village, raped her, which caused the community to ostracize her. The rape and its effects motivated Sunitha to advocate for sex workers. Soon after her decision, a police crackdown on Hyderabad brothels, with no resources for the newly homeless sex workers, led to suicides and devastation among the sex workers and their children. In response, Sunitha collaborated with a Catholic missionary (despite being Hindu herself) and founded Prajwala, a school and shelter for rescued prostitutes and prostitutes.
Though not the main point behind telling Sunitha’s story, the police crackdown in Hyderabad contains important lessons. Without a strategy and provisions for prostitutes’ life beyond the brothel, the crackdown ended in catastrophe. This underscores the complexity of solving sex trafficking, and serves as a reminder that freeing a forced prostitute doesn’t actually place her in safety. Further, Sunitha’s Hinduism didn’t conflict with the Catholic missionary ethic, an example of productive collaboration between different religious groups.
Sunitha worked on the ground, confronting pimps and gathering evidence with which to convince police to raid brothels. Thugs retaliated by stabbing to death Sunitha’s first employee, himself a former pimp. It became clear that Sunitha and her workers were in serious danger, so she shifted her approach to work more with the government and aid groups. Prajwala has expanded to also rehabilitate former prostitutes and train them in vocational skills—not only in making crafts, but in welding and carpentry, uncommon careers for Indian women.
Sunitha’s persistence is both inspiring and a cautionary tale: confronting thugs was brave but reckless, and ultimately lethal. Working in cooperation with established systems, then, can be necessary for social entrepreneurs. Further, Prajwala’s training of women in typically male vocations shows how social entrepreneurs who defy gender roles can bring about change both progressive and pragmatic.
Sunitha downplays Prajwala’s success, saying that prostitution has nonetheless increased. But Abbas Be is evidence of the good Prajwala has done. Sold to a brothel, Abbas watched a rebellious girl in the brothel be hog-tied, beaten, and stabbed to death as a warning to other girls. When she was freed in a brothel raid, Abbas found shelter in Prajwala and is now a bookbinder and a counselor for other girls. Sunitha had Abbas tested for HIV, and because she tested positive, Sunitha is trying to find Abbas an HIV-positive husband.
It’s noteworthy that Abbas Be is a success story despite being HIV-positive. The fact that she contracted HIV while enslaved in a brothel doesn’t fate her story to be tragic. To the contrary, she has developed confidence, skills, and a role advocating for other women. Essential to Half the Sky is the reminder that oppressed women have unique and complex stories.
Prajwala’s workers want all brothels shut down, not just regulated, Kristof and WuDunn report. “Aid groups would have been too sensible to tackle the problem” of prostitution in Hyderabad, they write, but Sunitha’s tenacity led to great change. Further, while it was Sunitha who led the charge, American donors including Bill Drayton’s organization and Catholic aid services, made it more impactful.
Sunitha serves as subtle support for Kristof and WuDunn’s own argument that brothels should be eradicated. The fact that Sunitha, a woman who knows so intimately the brothel system in Hyderabad, disagrees with the legalize-and-regulate system is compelling evidence for eradication. Notably, Sunitha’s initiative thrived in part because of American financial support, the kind of support readers can give.