Elevate Women, Elevate the World: A Book Review by Christina Low

A review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide  by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn 

“Women hold up half the sky.” – Chinese Proverb

As YWiB’s resident bookworm, I read a lot of books.  Many of them are good.  A few have been not so good.  And every once in a while, a book will find its way to my bedside table and stay with me long after I’ve put it down.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is one of those books.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky is a startling, no-holds-barred look at what the authors cite as “the paramount moral challenge of the 21st century” – the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.  Have you ever read a book and actually cringed, or furrowed your brow, or wrinkled your nose in bewilderment, indignation or plain disgust?  That’s what I did, several times, while paging through the incredible stories told by Kristof and WuDunn, weaved from firsthand interviews and visits with women all over Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, among other places.  This book is not for the faint at heart – the anecdotes are grim, describing in graphic detail the plight of girls as young as ten (!) sold into sexual slavery and prostitution, women who suffer horrible, life-threatening injuries from childbirth, and the consequences imposed on those who choose to speak up or offer support.  It was almost an assault on my mind and my heart, because I’m female, and the only difference between me and the twentysomething victim from India is where we live.  If I came away with anything from reading this book, it’s that I am so, so thankful for the opportunities, the laws and the life I’ve been given simply by being born, raised and educated in Canada.

By the same token, that twenty-something victim who survived a gang rape in Pakistan also did something unheard of for someone of her status.  Her name is Muhktar Mai, and she fought back, applying for redress for the crime inflicted upon her, and soon afterward catching the attention of the country’s then-president, who compensated her with $8,300.  She used that money to open the first school for girls in her Muslim village, which is still thriving today.  She was named one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year in 2005, and has since started a women’s crisis centre in Meerwala, Pakistan.  So that’s another lesson I took with me – it’s that some of these stories do not have to end hopelessly or in despair.  Some of these appalling problems can not only be solved, but done so by the very women who endured the torture in the first place.  Inspiring, yes?

This book, while brutal and harsh and violent, is probably one of the most important books I’ve read.  It opened my eyes to issues that I didn’t know much about; it is at once an awareness builder, and a call to action.  It is living testimony that opportunity can, and does, arise from tragedy.  It also shows us that when women and girls are given the chance to reach their full potential, amazing things can happen for their children, their partners and their communities.  The key ingredient to achieving this “girl effect” is empowering girls with education, which teaches them that “femininity does not equal docility.”  Education nurtures assertiveness.  When girls learn what they are capable of, everyone around her benefits.  Elevate women, and you elevate the world.  Go read this book now.