Book Review: Half the Sky by Kristof & WuDunn

When Mao Zedong uttered, “Women hold up half the sky”, he ushered in a new age for China. Arguably, when China moved towards utlising their entire population by empowering women, they moved towards the economic powerhouse they are today.

In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer prize-winning couple Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn address the pertinent issue of equality and education for women and girls, and the far-reaching effects that may have.

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From Africa to Asia and Latin America, and the other dots on the map in between, sex-trafficking, gender-based violence and maternal mortality are meticulously addressed. Why is sex-trafficking pathognomonic of a larger problem? Why is it not okay to turn a blind eye, claiming that it is inevitable and therefore a waste of energy to attempt a solution? We are introduced to the personal lives of young survivors: a Cambodian teenager and a young Indian woman who both escaped this modern slavery. We are introduced to the border control and police who turn a blind eye and to the grassroot organisations that work to help these women.

Half the Sky implores: stop turning a blind eye. Stop being complicit to one of the greatest crimes to humanity. Slavery was once seen as an inevitable evil, until the abolitionists insisted otherwise. These matters are not “women’s issues”, they say; they are humanitarian issues.

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The stories and case studies in this book are told with candour: investing in maternal mortality projects is not cost-effective, but we should still endeavour to reduce maternal mortality rates, and the book explains why. And there is no room for political correctness here: issues of culture and religion are addressed head-on. The chapter, “Is Islam Misogynistic?” is done particularly well – not offensively, but without embellishments.

The authors have thought of everything and address the debates around legalising prostitution, microcredit companies and educating girls in dangerous environments. And while it is clearly a book of research, it is not overrun by statistics – something that is elaborated upon in the text itself. The authors are careful not to exaggerate (something which, they explain, is often a downfall of activists) and painstakingly point out the mistakes made by several aid organisations. In short, there is nothing pretentious or over-eager about this book.

The personal stories of young women – both privileged and not – are what boosts this text head-and-shoulders above other like it. It becomes research and journalism that reads like a novel, which means that I am comfortable to recommend it to fans of fiction and non-fiction alike.

“The tools to crush modern slavery exist,

but the political will is lacking.”

A comment was made in one review that “this is just another book written by privileged white people (ad lib)”. My skin in spite, Half the Sky hardly presents itself as such (also, WuDunn is not even white). It is a text written by people who have gone out of their way to investigate a pertinent matter of our lives, and it is quite clear that they do not for one moment support the condescending, top-to-bottom approach. It is, however, necessary to read this with an open mind. Some reviewers perceive this as a “feminist text” and react defensively – however, if one reads thoroughly, it is clear that women’s issues are not just women’s issues. They are not even “just” humanitarian issues. They are global, intersectoral issues.

Half the Sky does not offer a solve-all, but it does not fail to inspire. The magnitude of a problem does not prevent action.

Below is a TED Talk by Sheryl WuDunn. If you have twenty minutes to spare, it will be a worthwhile use of your time. I feel inspired once again to do good one day, and public health is calling my name.


  1. Hi, stopping by from SITS. What a poignant book and a great review. It is certainly easy to focus on our first world problems and its heartbreaking to know that third world women are suffering across the globe. I will have to add it to my to-read list. It’s easy to turn a blind eye, ignorance is bliss but it doesn’t help in making progress to help the plight of these women.

    1. Hi! I’m really glad you enjoyed the review, and I hope that you will enjoy the book. It has certainly opened my eyes, and I thought I was informed already.

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