Customer Reviews: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
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on September 17, 2009
I was able to read most of an advance copy of this book before Bill Drayton (founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public) snatched it away and ran off with it on his annual 2-week hiking trip to the mountains.

I think this has to be the most important book - not just for women's rights globally but for human rights - published in my memory.

Kristof and WuDunn weave together a most compelling story of how culture and customs historically suppress women. They tackle many tough, taboo topics - for example honor killing. But more importantly, they champion the stories of heroic women worldwide wholly committed to changing the many evils of the status quo.

What is more, they posit a kind of general framework theory that the really important advances in human rights that are going to be made in the near future are going to be brought about by these entrepreneurial pioneering women. In essence, that the backbone of the human rights movement and of real change across all societies is going to be a direct function of brave women who give themselves permission to say "NO" to thousands of years of (to most Westerners) unimaginable oppressive cultural customs and who take it upon themselves to lead to a new way. Once you have read the book, it is very hard, if not impossible, to disagree with Kristof and WuDunn's general theme. To wit, the brave women of Iran who took to the streets to protest the results of the recent election.

Among many other "super" women, HALF THE SKY spotlights the following inspirational Ashoka Fellows:

· Sunitha Krishnan (India), founder of Prajwala, a citizen sector organization in Hyderabad, India, fighting forced prostitution and sex trafficking, rescuing women and children from sexual exploitation, incestual rape, sexual torture, and abuse in prostitution. Her organization helps former prostitutes learn vocational skills so they can move into new careers. "Prajwala" means "an eternal flame".

· Sakena Yacoobi (Afghanistan), founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a citizen sector organization providing teacher training to Afghan women, educating and fostering education for girls and boys, and providing health education to women and children. Her organization also runs fixed and mobile health clinics that provide family planning services. Sakena holds the distinction of having been Ashoka's first Afghan Fellow. Educating women and girls was banned under the Taliban and is controversial under Islamic law.

· Roshaneh Zafar (Pakistan), founder of Pakistani microfinance lender, Kashf. A former World Bank employee, she was inspired after a chance meeting with Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank. "Kashf" means "miracle" and Kashf is indeed fostering a miracle by leveraging microfinance to women to transform the role of women in Pakistani society and bringing about a poverty-free world. To date, Kashf supports 305,038 families in Pakistan, has disbursed $202 million, and has 52 branches nationwide.

I am not alone in my enthusiasm for this book! Last Tuesday, September 15, 2009 from 1:15 pm to 2:45 pm, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ("UNODC") will be hosting a panel discussion and booksigning with Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn in the UN Trusteeship Council Chamber at UN Headquarters. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will deliver opening remarks. Every seat (550) in the Trusteeship Council Chamber was filled.

The buzz out there is that many people are coming and that everyone is very excited about the publication and significance of this extraordinary milestone work.

Five out of five stars. An absolute must read for anyone who cares about women's rights or human rights. A genuine eye popper that moves so fast, tackles so much that has hitherto been taboo and unmovable, and interweaves the unbelievably positive stories of the very heroic women already leading and creating change in a tapestry that is glimpse of a brave and very different, humanitarian new world.

Once you pick this book up, you will not be able to put it down. And once you have read it, you will be moved to help bring about tomorrow. Absolute proof that the glass (or the sky) is half full. We just have to give ourselves permission to make change. Or as Gandhi said, "we must be the change we wish to see."

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on December 27, 2012
As a feminist, I really looked forward to reading this book. I was lucky enough to find it at a book swap and didn't have to pay for it myself. Boy, am I glad I didn't. I give it three stars for what is trying to be accomplished: raising awareness about the plight of women around the world.

Despite the heroic effort to bring this worldwide tragedy to light, Kristof and WuDunn have done a serious disservice to journalism, especially of the investigative nature. While their attempts to draw attention to the oppression of women through statistics as well as grueling and gruesome stories deserve an applause, they consistently pushed ideas without revealing the whole truth. This is lying through omission.

In the section on prostitution, Kristof and WuDunn routinely would dismiss Western prostitution as "voluntary" and would flippantly dismiss the idea that women of America and other Western cultures can be enslaved. Page 24 of this book really revealed how disgustingly inattentive Kristof and WuDunn have been to sexual slavery in the West. "Moreover, Western men usually go with girls who are more or less voluntary prostitutes..." Combine this with page 9, "We certainly don't think of prostitutes as slaves, forced to do what they do, for most prostitutes in America, China, and Japan aren't truly enslaved." Are they out of their minds? Either they have turned a blind eye to the nature of prostitution as a whole or they are purposefully leaving it out in order to make the culture of prostitution of more developing countries appear more bleak. Let us not forget the average of prostitutes in America is roughly 15-years-old. That doesn't sound very voluntary to me. I highly suggest they take a look at some of Rachel Lloyd's work and maybe they'll stop spewing such ignorance.

When exploring the devastation AIDS has wrecked on our planet, Kristof and WuDunn do an excellent job of illustrating how terrible the sickness has been, especially in the developing world. Unfortunately, one of their "fixes" to the problem is that "governments should encourage male circumcision, which reduces HIV risk significantly." No, it doesn't. Those studies are outdated and considered inconclusive, just as the same studies which link female circumcision to reduced HIV contraction. It's amazing how quickly they cry out against female genital mutilation of children and then call for the same to be done to little baby boys. If they mean adult-only circumcision, I would be more likely to agree since, at that point, it is the choice of the person who actually owns those genitals. But otherwise, this passage reeks of hypocrisy.

Lastly, in their defense of Islam not being misogynistic, they lay large amounts of praise onto Aisha, Muhammad's "favorite" wife. Was it deliberate that they completely neglected to mention that she was married at six and raped at nine? Yes, raped. Because a nine-year-old does not and cannot consent to sexual intercourse. No, they left this out because it would have hurt the point they were making about how female-friendly the origins of Islam were.

The purpose of the book, to educate and move to action, is worthy of praise. However, the direct distaste for the truth is abhorrent and it's disappointed that anything that may have undermined the authors' ideas was completely omitted. They have shamed the practice of journalism.
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on September 12, 2009
This may be one of the most important books I have ever read. I heard Mr. Kristof on the radio and the title caught my attention. After the first page, the book caught my heart. This is such a well researched and well written book that I could not put it down. We all realize that women the world over face challenges that women in the US never have to face. Prepare to have your eyes opened when you open this book. I dare you not to be moved, and I dare you to do nothing after reading it. The women who share their stories here are some of the most courageous and strongest women ever, and they are changing their world for the better.
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on September 10, 2009
When I read an advance copy of this book, I was so stunned that I contacted the authors and told them I wanted to do whatever I could to help get the word out. It is a compelling and important work -filled with riveting anecdotes and a powerful, optimistic message about the opportunity we all have to support a movement that has the power to transform lives around the world. Read the book, and then go to [...] to learn more about how Lifting Women Lifts the World.
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on October 14, 2009
I believe in book's main premise: by empowering women and girls, we can change the world and help end poverty. However, I found it disappointing and shocking to read this entire book and not find a single story about water and sanitation. You can't even find the word "water" in the index.

No doubt, the stories Nick and Sheryl tell are horrific and inspiring, and women living in poverty face obstacles that I can't even imagine. But, as I read it, I felt it was more of a collection of anecdotes from Nick and Sheryl's international travels rather than as advertised: a "must-read" and "call to arms" about how we can end global poverty.

Having spent 19 years working in international aid, I don't see how you can seriously talk about helping women in poverty and not mention water or sanitation. For millions of girls from poor households, there is a straight tradeoff between time spent in school and time spent collecting water. For their mothers, time spent collecting water means they have little time for more productive work or rest.

Being without access to water means that to obtain the water they need to survive, people resort to ditches, rivers and lakes polluted with human or animal excrement, and they carry that water home on their heads or backs, causing chronic back pains and sores, wearing flip flops if they are wearing shoes at all, walking uphill on steep, rocky or muddy paths. This daily walk for water saps their energy, diminishes their health status, and prevents them from participating in economic and social activities that are vital to the development of communities.

Each day,
* Women spend the equivalent of 340 million work days on water collection
* Poor families spend $137 million is spent on treatment of water-related diseases
* 5 million girls are collecting water instead of attending school
* 7,000 children worldwide die from the lack of safe water and a toilet
Poverty and water are inextricably linked.

What began as a hopeful read has unfortunately left me jaded and wondering if providing PVC piping and septic tanks just don't have the emotional appeal and book-selling potential of sex slavery and genital mutilation.

So I'm in! Let's invest in women. I believe it will pay off. But we have to be smart about it. I've met too many girls who dropped out of school at the age of 6 to help their mothers carry water, so it makes no sense to me to invest in education in a community with no toilets or accessible, safe water supplies. It makes no sense to me to build a health clinic of any kind in a community without toilets or water either, because 80% of the illnesses that will come into that clinic will be caused by the lack of water and toilets. I'm also a believer in micro-lending, but I've met a lot of people who have defaulted on their loans in order to pay medical bills for a family member suffering from diarrhea.

I'm excited that people are talking about women and development. But I'm disappointed at this missed opportunity to talk about the vital links between water and sanitation and poverty and empowerment. We need to act appropriately to ensure that the lack of attention to water and sanitation does not undermine all other development goals.
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on April 1, 2013
This book came to me highly recommended, so I was somewhat surprised at how terrible the book was. Kristof and DuWunn have taken timely and important topics, such as human trafficking and lack of educational opportunities for women, and turned them into opportunities for the reader to (1) marvel at how brave Nicholas Kristof is, and (2) feel better about one's self by sending money. The writing is heavily paternalistic, and the victims are portrayed largely as objects that serve the story rather than full human beings. In a book that argues against women and girls being seen as objects, Kristof practically pats himself on the back for paying for young women (to free them--although one returns to her pimp), which just perpetuates the market view of women as objects, commodities. Rape victims are named, pictures of women in operating rooms are shown, and the privacy of these victimized women is not respected in the way that would be demanded for western subjects. Most women in the book are referred to by their first name, most men (especially western men) are referred to by their last names. There are exceptions, but even in sections dealing just with Americans the men are more likely to be referred to with their last names and the women are written of more casually.

The lack of consistency (if not outright contradictions) regarding real, workable solutions to the multitude of problems presented in the book was especially frustrating. There is constant proselytizing for more education for girls (it is one of the main points of the book), but then in a chapter on improving rural health care the authors write, "One sensible response [to the lack of doctors in rural areas] is to start training programs in Africa that produce many more health care professionals, but in two- or three-year programs that don't grant MDs that allow the graduates to find jobs abroad." So, besides making extremely broad generalizations about an entire diverse continent, the authors think Africans should be educated enough to help themselves but not enough to participate in the opportunities of the world? Up to this point in the book we have been led to believe that we should look down on foreign cultures that don't believe in educating their girls to the same level as their boys, but now Kristof and DuWunn argue for essentially the same thing-- educating Africans less than Westerners?

The authors seem to be writing for a U.S. audience, but there is no discussion of why the U.S., a developed, non-Muslim, country with equal voting rights, pretty good health care, and education for women, still has non-negligible problems with human trafficking, violence against women, and with disparate quality in maternal health. We have outlawed brothels (in most states), and yet there is still a problem with women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will. Human trafficking in the U.S. is a problem, even if the majority of the victims come from other countries. Why don't the authors discuss this when proposing better education, harsher laws against brothel owners, and women speaking up as solutions? Clearly, there is much more depth to all of these issues than the authors are willing or able to go into.

The bottom line is that this is an important book topic, but it has been mangled in the execution both by incomplete and inconsistent explanation of the issues and by paternalistic, ethnocentric writing. While there are some concrete suggestions for how to move forward on these issues, there are also statements such as, "If you're a parent, take your kids not just to London but also to India or Africa-or to the other side of the tracks in your own hometown." As though everyone interested in helping others has the disposable income to travel the world and lives on the "right" side of the tracks. I do hope that more people learn about these human rights issues, but I wish they would do so from a source that does a much better job of humanizing the victims and presenting the complexities of poverty, sexism, religion and politics that perpetuate these crimes.
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on November 15, 2009
Albeit I am attuned to current events, I have not known the extent of the atrocities, committed against females in many Asian and African countries, as narrated in Half the Sky. The authors, Nicolas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, have tirelessly documented episodes of human suffering. They describe the enslavement of young girls and women in brothels, genital mutilation, gang-rapping, honor killing and other deprivations. Women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, lack essential medical care and have no idea about the existence of birth control availability. It is surprising to me to learn how many people are being repressed because of their gender. The Chinese proverb that states "women hold up half the sky" makes as much sense to me as Hitler's assertion that women fit only for housekeepers and breeders. I could never find a logical explanation why the German forbade me to attend school and I am saddened to learn that so many young girls nowadays are being deprived of basic education.

I had been repressed and oppressed during the German occupation of Poland 1939-1945. As a teenager, I had seen the worst that man can do. I saw the Germans looting, expropriating, beating, torturing, shooting, hanging, burning alive, babies choked or smashed to death, starving and other unimaginable acts of extreme wickedness carried out against innocent people. I witnessed and experienced enslavement in enforced labor and concentration camps.

The most decent and compassionate person in my life was my stepmother, a female. The German who risked her life for me, thirty times, was a female. After the liberation from concentration camps, the first person who had offered me shelter was a German female. Although there were some vicious German female guards in Auschwitz, and in other concentration camps, most German women were less inclined to savagery than men. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot, the most infamous dictators, in recent history, who had caused the death of tens of millions, were all males. When women are mistreated, men are intrinsically adversely affected. When women, who are the half of the population, are marginalized it affects adversely the entire population.

Kristof and WuDunn deserve our gratitude for sharing their observations and personal interviews with so many affected victims and their benefactors. The authors bring to light the devastating problems facing millions of girls and women, but simultaneously with suggestive practical solutions to those problems. Education could bring emancipation for all women. The U.S. allocates $1 billion for every 1,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. I am not sure that such additional expenses will grand us more security here in the U.S. and/or bring more democracy to the Afghan people. I am however convinced that $1 billion invested in providing education to thousands of Afghan or Pakistan children and adults about health, hygiene, human rights, women and girls' rights, will eventually diminish sex trafficking, and the affliction of female genitals cutting. Women will enrich the countries where they live and contribute to create a better world for the beneficiaries and benefactors alike. Roshaneh Zafars, an educated Pakistani woman, says (page 191)"if I were prime minister for a day, I would put all our resources in education"

The authors lead us to pay attention to things that are disgusting. Readers are exhorted to get involved, to help financially and otherwise to put an end to the abuse of women wherever it still prevails. The authors deserve our recognition for their dedication to human rights, especially women rights. Half The Sky is an excellent literary work to enlighten all of us. The reader will be inspired and motivated to reach out to women born in countries not of their choice. It is a reference book how to help oppressed women via accountably charitable organizations. Let women's creative potential ripen!
Alter Wiener, author "From a Name to A Number"
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on July 2, 2011
I've admired the work of Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, for quite a while. I appreciate his tireless work of speaking up like few can about the plight of the poor and oppressed. It was only a matter of time, then, before I got around to reading the recent bestseller he wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. It's called "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."

The book is excellently written, as one might expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning duo, but that doesn't mean it's easy to read. The stories of unthinkable hardship endured by women are sobering, if not depressing. The scope of the problem is immense, from sex trafficking to honor killings to rape to an utter lack of opportunity in decision-making at times in even the smallest matters. But fortunately, we're presented with examples - though often small, isolated, and under-funded - of remarkable women making a real difference within their spheres of influence.

I am grateful for the contribution this book makes and it's quite encouraging to me that in an era of books like Twilight and I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, a book of substance about difficult but important matters becomes a national bestseller. I hope millions more read it.

But I do have a couple of criticisms. The title comes from the Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky." And of course it's an overdue thing to focus a book like this on the half of the world population that is, to a greater or lesser extent, largely oppressed. But while it's not at all politically correct to do so, I have to wonder, what about those who hold up the other half of the sky? The contributions that women can and do make to society are legion, and it's undeniable in the field of international development and aid that women have an exponentially better track record in many areas. It's no accident that the vast majority of microloan recipients in developing nations, for instance, are women.

But borrowing from the pages of groundbreaking Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the oppressors need liberation just as much as the oppressed. Indeed, history has repeatedly shown that when oppressed peoples "rise up" in a revolution of any sort, it's not all that surprising when the tables turn, the roles reverse, and we're left not with peace and justice but with nothing more than a new set of oppressors and oppressed. We need to do better than that. So, as a matter of principle, I wish Kristof and WuDunn would have focused a bit more on what it might look like for men and women to begin holding up the sky together, cooperatively, with mutual respect. As it is, very little is said about the role men should play in the world they envision. (Interestingly, I should add, the tagline on the book website reads, "Women aren't the problem, they're the solution along with men." Perhaps since publication they have given mutuality some additional thought.)

There's another sense in which the book fails - or paradoxically illustrates - its moniker. As one who grew up in Latin America and whose work involves a daily analysis of media coverage of world events, it is clear to me that Latin America doesn't get a sliver of the attention it deserves. Apart from beheadings in Mexico and the latest inflammatory sound bites from Chavez, one is consistently hard-pressed to find out through traditional media what's taking place south of the United States on the American continent. Kristof and WuDunn, unfortunately, don't help matters. The stories of oppression and opportunity they tell are largely from Africa and Asia, with a few examples from the Middle East and the very occasional reference to Latin America. So if you're interested in those who hold up the sky in the western half of the world, you'll have to look elsewhere, and I'm warning you now: it might take some work.

All things considered, however, Half the Sky is excellent, challenging, at times sickening, eventually inspiring, and all around quite important.

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on April 6, 2012
There is no doubt that this is an important book. As the authors state, the treatment of women in developing nations is not just a women's rights issue--it is a human rights issue. Educating women and giving them status as human beings will go a long way toward raising those in the poorest parts of the world out of abject poverty.

The authors recount many deeply disturbing stories, but I believe they are stories that must be told. If those of us with wealth are to be made to care, we must know what is happening in the world outside of our own middle-class lives. Despite the horrors that many of the girls and women featured in the book have suffered, there is hope here too: many uplifting stories of women making strides toward equality, starting their own businesses, freeing themselves from oppression. The authors also offer positive examples of ways to make a real change in the world--through microfinance, sponsorships, and the like. Their focus on the grassroots programs that actually work (as opposed to bloated aid programs which often don't) is inspiring.

That said, I had two main concerns with this book which prevent me from giving it five stars:

1) The tone that the book takes toward men. I recognize women have been oppressed for a long time, and it is so important for us to have a voice and be seen as human beings. But I think that can be done without disparaging men. It seems that making the world a better place should be something that both sexes attempt to take together--it is not an either-or situation. The majority of the men in this book are represented as drunken, abusive, oppressive tyrants who waste family resources on beer and prostitutes, while the women are brilliant but uneducated women who would shine and change the world if only they had the opportunity. The authors seem to argue that the women behave the way they do due to lack of education--which I agree with--but that the men behave the way they do because they are inherently lazy and selfish--which I do not. The problem on BOTH sides is a lack of education--let's find ways to educate men AND women, boys AND girls and then perhaps both sexes can rise to the occasion of supporting their families and caring for their children.

2) The book takes some shots at political conservatives. I hesitate to include this comment, because the authors appear to have gone to some effort to be as balanced as possible, and I appreciate that. They state a few times that evangelical movements have done great good. But there are a handful of comments made throughout the book that left a bad taste in my mouth. There aren't many of them, but I wish they weren't there at all. Examples: "One of George W. Bush's few positive international legacies ..." "Publicity about Pakistan's harassment of Mukhtar was embarrassing to the Bush administration, so [they put pressure on Pakistan to make it stop]" "One of the challenges in curbing the virus is a suspicion of condoms held by many conservatives." "Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses." (While I agree wholeheartedly with the last statement, the implication here is unfair. People of faith support a myriad of causes and charities.) It is unfortunate that politics are brought into this at all, because the problems described transcend political or religious differences, and there are effective ways of helping women that we can all agree on and fight for.

On the whole, however, these concerns are minor compared to the scope of the book and what it is trying to address. Certainly read it, and be changed by it.
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on December 26, 2010
I first saw the authors on the Oprah show and was impressed and intrigued. This is a life changing book and it's both easy and hard to read. It's easy in that it's intelligently and thoughtfully done. It's hard because life for women in most of the world is so awful. You can know that intellectually, but reading the specific stories and realizing the day-to-day life horrors for so many is heartbreaking. The greatest thing about this book is that the authors give the reader the tools to DO something and make a difference. Charities and organizations that they themselves have seen on the ground in many places DOING good work and helping.

Again, this book is hard to read...I had to stop midway through (it was about 3AM) and I sat and cried for a good hour. As a female, I really realized (I already KIND of knew this) that to be born in the USA makes you LITERALLY one of the luckiest women on earth. We have so much here and we have so much to do elsewhere. This book illustrates how this is truly a human rights tragedy, how we ALL can do something about it and we must use our voices and resources to help. It's our job to help. This book definitely wakes you up, makes you present and calls you to action. There's no way you can read it and go back to normal. I plan on giving this to all of the strong women I know. Excellent, important book.
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