Srey Rath is a petite, spirited young Cambodian woman, whom the authors meet while she sells goods at a market stall. With big, confident gestures, she tells a story that began when she was fifteen and, to help her family pay the bills, joined four friends and followed a job agent to Thailand, where dishwashing jobs were promised. But rather than bring the girls to Thailand, the job agent brought them to the capital of Malaysia and handed them off to a gangster. The gangster explained he had paid for them, and they now must pay him back in order to be released. Their work, Rath realized, was prostitution.
Kristof and WuDunn begin by describing Srey Rath’s bubby personality in part to show that someone so confident and appealing can have an invisible, traumatic past. This invisibility of women’s oppression is evident even in an encounter with a well-adjusted young saleswoman. Then, the authors lead the reader straight to the brutal heart of Srey Rath’s story, showing that the book will not sugarcoat such stories of tragedy.
At first, Rath resisted. The first time she was locked up with a customer, she struggled to keep him from raping her, for which the head gangster brutally beat her. To break Rath into submission, the boss and other thugs raped her, beat her, and drugged her, and when she still didn’t comply, threatened to kill her. Finally, she gave in and plastered a smile on her face for customers, while being paid nothing, fed little, and kept in an apartment with a dozen other girls.
While reporting on Rath’s story, the authors write objectively and straightforwardly, much in the style of newspaper journalism. By not shying away from the details of Rath’s story, the authors help readers unflinchingly confront the reality that Rath and other women endure.
Out of desperation, Rath and three other girls risked a perilous escape from their locked apartment—they crossed to the next building by balancing a wooden board across two tenth-story balconies. They managed to make it to the police department, but the police arrested them for anti-immigration laws. Rath spent the next year in a Malaysian prison. She thought freedom was finally within reach when a policeman drove her toward the Thai border, but he sold her to a trafficker, and she found herself in Thailand in yet another brothel.
Rath’s story goes on to show that, even when there is hope for a forced prostitute’s emancipation, forces conspire against that emancipation. First, after escaping the brothel, the girls met cultural and institutional disregard for the injustice they endured—instead of retribution for their captors, the girls were imprisoned for illegal immigration. Then, police corruption put Rath back in a brothel.
Rath’s story is far too common, Kristof and WuDunn write, yet little considered in the global agenda. The authors recount their own journey to their present mission—to make gender equity a global humanitarian priority. In 1989, the authors covered the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the human rights story of the year, in which the Chinese government killed 400-800 protestors. The next year, though, they encountered a study that revealed that 400-800 infants die each week in China from neglect, simply because they’re girls. The report made the authors question their journalistic priorities, and made them realize that journalists, more prone to covering events that happen on a given day, often neglect to report on tragic events that happen every day. In addition, they found that little U.S. foreign aid is targeted to helping women and girls despite the fact that some 60-100 million girls and women are missing, likely either trafficked or dead.
By showing their own journey to investment in gender equality, Kristof and WuDunn illustrate that even conscientious, investigative journalism like theirs can fail to report on large human rights abuses. As a result, these injustices go widely ignored by audiences. The authors’ journey also shows that they’re not perfect, which suggests that, just as they became enlightened to these injustices and actively responded to them, the reader can, too.
The issues aren’t isolated to the developing world, the authors make clear. Rape and forced prostitution exist in the U.S., and are widely ignored. But, Kristof and WuDunn write, the problems are especially lethal in parts of the developing world. Plainly put, in much of the world girls are valued less than boys are. The authors explain that girls might not get the vaccinations their brothers get, and mothers might not get the medicine their sons get. This amounts to a “gendercide” that, the authors tell us, has killed more people in the past fifty years than all the 20th century’s bloody genocides put together. They write a central statement of the book: “In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”
Kristof and WuDunn don’t want to suggest that the U.S. deserves any self-righteous sense of superiority, because many of the humanitarian problems discussed in Half the Sky also exist in the U.S. But, their book focuses on the developing world. The authors assume that readers will see both 18th century slavery and 19th century totalitarianism as destructive conditions that led to great human rights violations. By placing the “struggle for gender equality” as the corollary moral challenge of our century, they stress the historic gravity of this struggle.
The chapter returns to Rath. She managed to escape from the Thai brothel. After returning home, American Assistance for Cambodia provided her with a pushcart and starter goods to peddle near the Cambodian-Thai border. Through her sunny personality and industriousness she became a great saleswoman. Now, she has a husband, a son, savings for her son’s education, and an expanded two-stall business. The authors invite you, the next time you’re in Cambodia, to go to her stall and be charmed by her bubbly personality, so remote from the terrible experiences she was forced to endure earlier in her life.
Importantly, it was an American aid group in Cambodia that assisted Rath in building a business, and therefore gaining autonomy and security. Both Rath’s success story and her magnetic, cheerful persona suggest that redemption is possible for women who have endured untold suffering.
Rath’s story, the authors stress, underscores what women can achieve when given opportunity. They warn that the rest of the book will be full of sobering anecdotes, but want readers to bear in mind that, “Women aren't the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.”
Rath’s story represents the hope that is central to Half the Sky. The authors imply that it is less worthwhile for readers to mourn global tragedies than to respond to them through action. When given opportunity, the authors make clear, women form the solutions to the very problems that afflict them.
The authors then describe visiting Sheryl WuDunn’s ancestral village in China, Shunshui. During each visit, they wondered, where are all the women? It turned out that the women had gone to the epicenter of China’s manufacturing economy to work in factories that supply American retail stores. The employment of women, the authors explain, is a boon to China’s national economy and brings about girls’ education, women’s mobility, delayed marriage, and reduced childbearing. This pattern is known as “the girl effect.”
Kristof and WuDunn use the migration of women from WuDunn’s ancestral village as an example of the way women’s empowerment has universal benefits, such as fortifying the economy and curbing population growth. Readers may not expect that employment in factories that supply American malls is a source of women’s empowerment, but the authors argue that, contrary to popular belief, it is.
The girl effect can help combat poverty all over the world, Kristof and WuDunn argue. Initiatives in India and Bangladesh had stunning success in the late 20th century, they write, and in the 1990s the World Bank and United Nations began to appreciate the global benefits of gender equality. In addition, private aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Nike Foundation have focused on women. The benefits are so vast that even terrorism can be abated by women’s empowerment, the authors argue. More and more, Kristof and WuDunn write, the urgent issue of gender equity is appearing on the international agenda.
A note of hope for the future, the authors imply, is the fact that gender equality has made far more appearances in the agendas of diverse groups—not just women-focused groups—as people awaken to the possibilities that women’s empowerment contains.
The authors lay out the primary issues they will cover in Half the Sky, which are sex trafficking, gender-based violence (including honor-killings and mass rape), and maternal mortality. They also reference solutions such as girls’ education and microfinance. They mention that wealthy countries also need to address serious domestic gender inequities. Further, while many human rights issues exist and need addressing, they consider women’s oppression to have the most need, and the most opportunity for change.
The authors are very clear about what topics the book covers. This clarity helps stress that the book is a pragmatic one, aimed at both exposing injustice and presenting solutions. This is not at the exclusion or dismissal of other human rights issues, but gender equality is what the authors prioritize most highly.
The narrative returns to Rath, who agreed to journey to Malaysia and try to find the brothel where she was captive. However, when they arrived, they learned the brothel no longer existed—international public shaming of the government led to a crackdown on sex traffickers. This result shows, the authors argue, that faraway individuals can influence life for oppressed women.
The book’s final segment of Rath’s story suggests even more reason to hope for better conditions of women worldwide, since not was Rath saved, but her captors’ operation was shut down due to international shaming. It is possible, then, to fix systems, not just save individual girls.
Just as African slavery in the 19th century was not a sad but inevitable necessity, the authors posit that the oppression of women is not a fated fact of the 21st century. In the 1780s a few Britons decided the slave trade had to stop, and it eventually did, the authors remind us. Readers can all belong to a similar movement to emancipate women worldwide, Kristof and WuDunn write, and they urge the reader to leap into this unfolding story of empowerment.
Because most readers have historical context for the transatlantic slave trade, its comparison with today’s gender inequity underscores the issue’s seriousness. Just as enlightened people in Britain imagined a world without African slavery, readers can imagine a world without women’s oppression, and work toward that goal.