In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn argue that the oppression of women is the moral and economic issue of the age, and to spur readers to take action against such oppression. To build their argument, they guide the reader through wrenching stories of women’s oppression in Asia and Africa, but also heartening stories of women’s triumph. They also grapple with complex issues regarding foreign aid, and outline hopeful solutions to the global problem of gender inequity and oppression.
First, they introduce Srey Rath, a Cambodian who, at fifteen, was trafficked into slavery in Thailand, raped into acquiescence, and forced to works as a prostitute until her eventual escape. The story of Srey Rath sets the tone for the rest of the book by underscoring the abuse women endure around the world, and the fact that, while her story is tragic, it’s actually very common. The authors continue examining the problem of sexual slavery, in which at least 3 million women and girls are held captive. After giving more examples of how slaveholders break young women through drug addiction, humiliation, and cultural condemnation of women who have premarital sex, the authors address the question, how can we help? Many aid efforts fail, they acknowledge, and aid groups exaggerate successes, but there are possible solutions—the best way to address female slavery is to prevent it, and the best prevention is girls’ education. They describe a success story of a private school in Seattle that sponsors a new school in rural Cambodia, a project that empowered local girls and revolutionized the outlook of students in Seattle. The authors stress that the project met challenges. For instance, some girls, without financial help, would have had to work to support family instead of attend school. These stories illustrate the trajectory of Half the Sky: the authors show a problem women face worldwide, then responses to that problem, and are honest about both the shortcomings and successes of those responses.
After more examples of slavery, Kristof and WuDunn tell stories about other sources of women’s oppression, namely the use of rape as a weapon to control women, the murder of women who are deemed a shame to their family (so-called honor killings), and devastating women’s health issues. The stories told in Half the Sky are often brutal and sometimes graphic, and occur worldwide. The authors don’t intend to conflate countries of the developing world, but they do report on problems that persist across many of these countries, so they cover a diverse array of locales. These include Cambodia, Thailand, India, Afghanistan, Senegal, and Congo.
Further, the authors investigate obstacles that make solving the above problems even harder. These obstacles include Western misunderstandings of Islamic cultures, the divisions between pro-choice and pro-life advocates in the United States, and the nuanced challenges even the best-intentioned aid efforts can face. Throughout the book, the authors follow examples of difficulties in providing aid with examples of successful solutions, which underpins the author’s most emphatic argument: real solutions do exist, and their examples can be emulated elsewhere or reinforced through financial support or volunteer work. Such solutions include investing in girls’ education, microfinance, and pursuing empirically based rather than intuitive remedies. Grassroots campaigns, the authors stress, make the most promising approach to solving problems of gender inequity.
Most of Half the Sky follows a pattern in which chapters are split in two, the first part reporting on specific stories to explain a key factor in women’s oppression, or to explain an obstacle to mitigating that factor, while the second part details a successful response to that problem/obstacle. Half the Sky ends on an encouraging note: the promise that each of us can offer time, money, or political advocacy to make gender equity a top global priority.