“Half the Sky”

The condition of the developing world usually gets strange treatment in the media of the developed one. It is seen by some as a place where no one can get their act together, so thus should in essence, eat cake. Or, conversely, it is seen as a place for many in the first world to pity, a place of lost souls. It doesn’t take much to go from compassion to condescension, and unfortunately many times the First World can delve into this, treating the developing world as nothing more than a cause. In a strange paradox, this kind of compassion has its own brand of indifference, because it renders people into nothing more than charity cases. It is hard to strike a balance between the two to remember the humanity in the activism.

This is what Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn attempt to achieve in their book, “Half the Sky”, which discusses the plight of women in the developing world. Certainly there has been plenty of discussion of this before, but what the authors do is try to make each issue come alive by introducing women and girls affected by various human rights abuses particular to females. Sexual abuse, maternal health, female infanticide, and domestic violence are just some issues presented here. Each female is a person that the authors have met personally, and the authors do more than create a profile, they create a personality. It is their hope that by really coming to know a person, it will be harder for you the reader to turn away.

This approach, to me, comes off more effectively than the scolding that seems too common in an activist polemic. The authors manage to relay controversial topics without being vitriolic, and their success in seeing developing world individuals as just that is the major strength of the book. Even when they disagree with a point of view, they take the time to investigate their opponents’ positions and try to see where they have done good, such as in their disagreement with those against promoting family planning. After each chapter, the authors give suggestions as to how to remedy the crisis they have reported, and the endnotes provide ample resources for the reader to choose ways to implement that assistance. Their profiles of women and girls are compelling enough that it is hard not to want to render any assistance at all.

One interesting comment is regarding the title. It comes from a statement that Mao Zedong uttered: “Women hold up half the sky”. While it may seem strange to laud the Communist dictator, of which the authors acknowledge led a brutal regime, the authors show evidence that despite the tyranny, under Mao’s regime, women gained a great deal of equality in China. This can seem somewhat ominous: one would hope that a society does not have to resort to totalitarianism in order to give some semblance of human dignity to women and girls.

When an author has an activist message, it is a challenge to convey this in a book without seeming like a ranting polemic. There is no question that journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were issuing a clarion call to the plight of women in the developing world in their book. But they manage for the most part to remain informative while doing so. The dire crises of women you will never meet comes alive on these pages, and their individual stories will be hard to forget. Perhaps that is the point. It is easier to not help someone who seems far and distant. By making each woman and girl seem like someone next door, the authors remind us that no one is too far away to be the neighbor in need.