Kristof and WuDunn wrote Half the Sky in response to one key reality: across the world, women and girls are valued less than men, and therefore experience far more violence, more neglect, worse healthcare, and fewer opportunities than men. Through reporting that focuses on women in developing countries, and which focuses particularly on the devastating impact of sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality in Africa and Asia, Kristof and Wudunn build an argument that the oppression of women is the most critical moral and human rights issue of the 21st century.
In addition to reporting on the various and devastating aspects of the oppression of women, Kristof and Dunn also reveal how such oppression is under-recognized and not widely understood. The many explanations for this neglect include the nature of journalism, as well as political agendas, and misogyny. First, journalists are more likely to cover events and particular stories, such as terrorist bombings, than everyday cruelties—and audiences similarly have smaller appetites for everyday cruelties. Because rapes happen daily, and every day girls are sold into slavery, these injustices get overlooked. Second, gender equity isn’t a top foreign policy priority for the U.S. or other countries, largely because it isn’t a priority for constituents. Third, the authors document how sexism and misogyny—the hatred of women—both gives rise to the oppression of women and cause people to discount it. Because women are considered worth less than men, their problems are taken less seriously. The author’s make the case that until a woman’s life is valued the same as a man’s life, justice for women will be out of reach.
Through its reporting on specific women, Half the Sky shows how the devaluation of women happens at many levels: governments devalue women, men devalue women, and even women devalue women. In showing this reality, the book makes it clear that the issue can’t be solved only by laws or by reforming male behavior. Rather, the books shows that this misogynistic thinking is deeply embedded in cultures across the world, internalized and perpetuated by its very victims. Therefore, the authors argue, solutions will be complicated and take concerted, serious effort (even as the book does suggest potential solutions, which we cover in the Solutions theme). More fundamentally, the book argues that before we can change these realities, we must face them. Half the Sky, then, is itself an attempt to help people see and recognize the oppression of women, through storytelling that illustrates gender inequity. The book is not meant to be just passive, though. It is also a call to action, a call to its readers and the world to act to help overcome the oppression of women.
The Oppression of Women ThemeTracker
The Oppression of Women Quotes in Half the Sky
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.
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.
Rescuing girls from brothels is the easy part, however. The challenge is keeping them from returning. The stigma that the girls feel in their communities after being freed, coupled with drug dependencies or threats from pimps, often lead them to return to the red-light district. It’s enormously dispiriting for well-meaning aid workers who oversee a brothel raid to take the girls back to a shelter and give them food and medical care, only to see the girls climb over the back wall.
‘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.
Surveys suggest that about one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.
“In short, women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values, just as men do. This is not a tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike.”
“In short, rape becomes a tool of war in conservative societies precisely because female sexuality is so sacred. Codes of sexual honor, in which women are valued based on their chastity, ostensibly protect women, but in fact they create an environment in which women are systematically dishonored.
“No one reading this book, we hope, can fathom the sadistic cruelty of those soldiers who used a pointed stick to tear apart Dina's insides. But there is also a milder, more diffuse cruelty of indifference, and it is global indifference that leaves some 3 million women and girls incontinent just like Dina.”
“So lifetime risk of maternal death is one thousand times higher in a poor country than in the West. That should be an international scandal.”
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.
The unfortunate reality is that women’s issues are marginalized, and in any sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women’s issues than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed.