Half the Sky: turning oppression into opportunities for women worldwide by husband and wife team Nicholas Krstof and Sheryl WuDunn has two things going against it: the subject — which most agree is important but feel stuck and don’t know what to do– and it won a Pulitzer prize (making it seem more academic than it is). That being said: read it! It is readable and inspiring without coming off as written by Polly Anna.

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.

This is our issue and our time.

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.

Talk about the messy middle! Sex trafficking, complex questions around making prostitution legal or not (their findings: making it illegal is MUCH better, but probably for reasons you wouldn’t guess and even surprised them), maternal mortality and fistulas (I first learned about fistulas when I developed one. However, I had surgery for it in the US, where in pre-surgery paperwork I was told that I had a 1% chance of being incontinent afterwards. Now, that is a very small percentage but it caught my eye and to this day I remember the fleeting thought of canceling the surgery. I had no idea how truly awful fistulas could be until I read Cutting for Stone in another QOTW). Half the Sky also looked at family planning, education, and microfinance.

One of the most challenging ideas for me was first mentioned in the section on sex trafficking. There was a clothing factory that was shut down due to the West demanding better working conditions, sending the majority of the girls to prostitution and death by AIDS a few years later. What’s better, working in a factory where you went home to your family, earned an honest salary, and produced products that are needed OR dying of AIDS because of poor working conditions? This is not a simple issue! Later in the book they switch from the Middle East to China and built on this idea:

Implicit in what we’re saying about China is something that sounds shocking to many Americans: Sweatshops have given women a boost. Americans mostly hear about the iniquities of garment factories, and they are real – the forced overtime, the sexual harassment, the dangerous conditions. Yet women and girls still stream to such factories because they’re preferable to the alternative or hoeing fields all day back in a village. In most poor countries, women don’t have many job options. In agriculture, for example, women typically aren’t as strong as men and thus are paid less. Yet in the manufacturing world, it’s the opposite. The factories prefer young women, perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rest of manufacturing has greatly raised the opportunities and status of women.

The implication is that instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the West should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries, particularly in Africa and the Muslim world. There is virtually no manufacturing for export in Africa, and one of the ways we could help women in Egypt and Ethiopia would be to encourage factories for the export of cheap shoes or shirts. Labor-intensive factories would create large numbers of jobs for women, and they would bring in more capital—and gender equality.”

Instead of denouncing sweatshops, we should be encouraging them. That’s a fairly radical statement, but one that oddly rings true with me.  How about you? What do you think?

(The book ends with a lengthy chapter on what you can do and pages of resources. I’ll say it one more time: get this book and share your thoughts! I’d love to hear them)

Leave A Comment

  1. JoDee January 9, 2012 at 7:02 am - Reply

    PREACH IT!! I’ll take that “problem” over its alternative any day. Would like to read this! Thanks!

  2. Melinda Oberhelman January 9, 2012 at 10:25 am - Reply

    I am going to have to read the book–moving to the top of my list. I really appreciated the different perspective–it really makes one stop and think. Thank you for helping me to think differently.

  3. mary beth j January 9, 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Amy, I LOVE your blog. Im getting a kindle for christmas so i’m excited to download a lot of the books you write about here. Have you read Factory Girls? It’s one of my favorite books about modern-day China and highlights your point- these women are going to the factories because it’s their best bet for upward mobilization. I think this should then be a starting point for companies, especially western / foreign ones, to provide services to these women (or whoever works there). The punishment for a company that breaks the rules shouldnt be to shut them down but to make them comply with the rules and provide better salaries / working conditions / incentives. I didnt read the book and these are, of course, complex issues but in a country where women supposedly hold up half the sky…

    • Amy January 9, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

      Mary Beth, thanks for stopping by :) … and I have read Factory Girls! Really good! Thanks for the reminder. Amy

  4. TheLastLawman February 2, 2012 at 5:49 am - Reply

    Wow really? Using this mentality, should we allow the same for women here in the U.S. considering the economy? I mean there are millions out of work here in the United States, the line of homeless continues to grow each day and there are countless starving, ill women and children.

    You’re way of thinking disturbs me, especially coming from a woman. If there are two wrongs to choose from, you don’t choose the better wrong, you walk away and do what’s right. I guess as we sit here in our comfy homes using our tech gadgets to blog about problems half way across the World, it doesn’t much matter what those women are enduring each day… just as long as we get our “product” and Corporations get their money right? If you can make peace with what can almost be defined as “21st Century Slavery” well then, God Bless you, you need it. Your comments almost make you the perfect “Poster Child” for Corporate greed.

    Wow… this is 2 steps backwards in history ladies, I’m astonished!

    • Amy February 2, 2012 at 7:20 am - Reply

      LastLawman, thanks for your comments. Please read the book for a fuller development of the argument (keep in mind this is post has only a short excerpt) — my hope is to push people to read the book and think about these issues. As you pointed out, these are serious issues and real women and girls are harmed daily, the very reason they wrote the book and I referenced it. Things need to change and we each have a role in bringing about that change. Again, I’d ask that you please go to your local library and check out the book. I’m not saying that you’ll agree with it, but that with more information you might understand their argment a little more fully than after just reading this blog. Amy

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