Half the Sky is, at its heart, an optimistic book. While the book makes clear that injustices toward women are widespread and comprise a global tragedy, the authors also show that solutions do abound, and that they may be less expensive and more creative than most think.
The authors stress that the primary, most promising solution, is girls’ education. Aside from the fact that education should be a basic human right, the authors detail a constellation of benefits for women that follow when girls get schooling, including decreased birth rates (which mitigates overpopulation), fewer cases of HIV/AIDS, and paths out of poverty. And the benefits, as the authors reiterate, extend to whole societies, not just to women.
In addition to explaining particular solutions, the authors also stress the importance of using a particular methodology to identify and pursue such solutions. Namely, the authors emphasize the importance of empiricism, which uses evidence and data rather than intuition, to find solutions to the issues that contribute to the oppression of women. For instance, the authors explain that one inexpensive and surprising way to increase girls’ access to and success in school is to provide communities with iodized salt, the kind Americans buy at the supermarket. Iodine deficiencies, which inhibit brain development in the womb, especially for female fetuses, affect 31% of households in the developing world. Similarly, deworming girls, handing out tampons and pads, and providing uniforms are ways to keep girls in schools longer. Expensive initiatives like creating a new school or importing teachers sometimes aren’t necessary, while providing a simple resource can make all the difference.
Because its primary mission is to engage Western individuals in the effort to combat the oppression of women, Half the Sky tries to highlight that individual people from the first world, who so often feel dwarfed and powerless, can actually effect change. While the book acknowledges that many global aid efforts are directed by the United Nations or large bureaucracies, Kristof and WuDunn argue that the most effective work belongs to grassroots efforts, and they try to encourage and propose models for the further development of such work. At the same time, the authors are careful to make clear that the story of women’s empowerment should never be treated as a story of Western moral conquest. That is, Western efforts must defer to the women for whom they advocate, listen to them, and never position the first world as superior. Aid should be a “kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own.” Aid offered as a kind of salvation provided by “enlightened” Westerners to “ignorant” third world residents, the authors make clear, is repugnant morally and, in practical terms, unlikely to succeed in achieving its goals. The authors’ own reporting supports this assessment, as so many of anecdotes that Half the Sky show women and girls who, when given just a small opportunity, perform spectacularly.
Solutions to Address the Oppression of Women ThemeTracker
Solutions to Address the Oppression of Women Quotes in Half the Sky
Many of the stories in this book are wrenching, but keep in mind this central truth: Women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.
Honor killings, sexual slavery, and genital cutting may seem to Western readers to be tragic but inevitable in a world far, far away. In much the same way, slavery was once widely viewed by many decent Europeans and Americans as a regrettable but ineluctable feature of human life. It was just one more horror that had existed for thousands of years. But then in the 1780s a few indignant Britons, led by William Wilberforce, decided that slavery was so offensive that they had to abolish it. And they did. Today we see the seed of something similar: a global movement to emancipate women and girls...So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way—not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.
‘Empowerment’ is a cliché in the aid community, but it is truly what is needed. The first step toward greater justice is to transform that culture of female docility and subservience, so that women themselves become more assertive and demanding. As we said earlier, that is, of course, easy for outsiders like us to say: We’re not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it’s imperative that outsiders champion her; we also must nurture institutions to protect such people.
“We sometimes think that Westerners invest too much effort in changing unjust laws and not enough in changing culture, by building schools or assisting grassroots movements. Even in the United States, after all, what brought equal rights to blacks wasn’t the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments passed after the Civil War, but rather the grassroots civil rights movement nearly one hundred years later. Laws matter, but typically changing the law by itself accomplishes little.”
“Behind the rapes and other abuse heaped on women in much of the world, it’s hard not to see something more sinister than just libido and prurient opportunism. Namely: sexism and misogyny. How else to explain why so many more witches were burned than wizards? Why is acid thrown in women’s faces, but not in men’s? Why are women so much more likely to be stripped naked and sexually humiliated than men? Why is it that in many cultures, old men are respected as patriarchs, while old women are taken outside the village to die of thirst or to be eaten by wild animals? Granted, in the societies where these abuses take place, men also suffer more violence than males do in America—but the brutality inflicted on women is particularly widespread, cruel, and lethal.”
“Young people often ask us how they can help address issues like sex trafficking or international poverty. Our first recommendation to them is to get out and see the world. If you can’t do that, it’s great to raise money or attention at home. But to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it —and it’s impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst. One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad.” Chapter 5
Religion plays a particularly profound role in shaping policies on population and family planning, and secular liberals and conservative Christians regularly square off. Each side has the best of intentions, yet each is deeply suspicious of the other—and these suspicions make it difficult to forge a broad left-right coalition that would be far more effective in confronting trafficking and overcoming the worst kinds of poverty.
That is the power of education. One study after another has shown that educating girls is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty. Schooling is also often a precondition for girls and women to stand up against injustice, and for women to be integrated into the economy. Until women are numerate and literate, it is difficult for them to start businesses or contribute meaningfully to their national economies.
It is not uncommon to stumble across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net and then find the child's father at a bar, where he spends $5 each week. Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification and more for education and starting small businesses. Because men now typically control the purse strings, it appears that the poorest families in the world typically spend approximately ten times as much (20 percent of their income on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitutes, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children.
So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot-binding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures. One lesson of China is that we need not accept that discrimination is an intractable element of any society. If culture were immutable, China would still be impoverished and Sheryl would be stumbling along on three-inch feet.
Incredibly, it looks as if [grassroots activists] will make female genital cutting in West Africa go the way of foot-binding in China. That makes the campaign against genital cutting a model for a larger global movement for women in the developing world. If we want to move beyond slogans, we would do well to learn the lessons of the long struggle against genital cutting.
We like to think of aid as a kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own.