April 24, 2010

Half the Sky - Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The sub-title of this book is "Turning Oppression into Opprotunity for Women Worldwide. I read it as part of the group study leading up to a short-term mission trip to Zambia in July, but given my interests (namely social justice and international development), it is a book that likely would have crossed my path anyways.

The authors are journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China, and this book is very well written and easy to read with respect to writing style. What makes it difficult are the topic covered. The title comes from a Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky," and it delves into issues that women face around the world. The authors have traveled extensively through Asia and Africa (I noticed fewer stories from Latin America), talking to people and collecting stories. They present problems such as human trafficking, forced prostitution, maternal mortality, and female genital mutilation; but rather than presenting only the problems, they also tell stories of people and organizations, and what is being done to combat these problems. The issues are grim, and in some places it seems as though they are getting worse rather than better, but each chapter ends on a positive note with the story of how issues are being addressed.

This book really should be on the must-read list for anyone interested in International Development to become familiar with the issues before going overseas. It is very powerfully written; and one thing that I really enjoyed were the photographic portraits of the women whose stories are told.

All that being said, the book isn't perfect. The authors do acknowledge their biases throughout the book (e.g. their views on how to solve the problems of forced prostitution - should governments legalize and regulate prostitution; or should it stay illegal and governments should crack down on brothels? The authors are quite clear in their preference for cracking down on brothels and give their reasons why.)

And one issue that I thought was brushed off was the issue of prostitution here in North America. The authors say, right in the first chapter, "Growing up in the United States and then living in China and Japan, we though of prostitution as something that women may turn to opportunistically or out of economic desperation," and then there is one similar comment along the same lines later in the book. But really, the issues underlying this so-called "voluntary" prostitution are the same issues underlying forced prostitution or human trafficking - poverty, abuse, and drug addiction. I would challenge the authors to show me a girl growing up in a loving middle- or upper-class family who plans to be a prostitute when she grows up! Most women on the streets here in Canada have been abused, are addicted to drugs, and have no other options. Life on the streets here is not fun (to put it mildly); but in order for someone to choose it, it has to be better than any other option open to her.

Ahem. Stepping off my soapbox now.

Despite this quibble (which, as it arose in the first chapter, coloured my reading of the rest of the book as I was always on guard for other disagreements with the authors), I do agree with the majority of the issues presented, as well as with the proposed solutions. An excellent read.


Wanda said...

I have a cousin heading to Guatamala soon and a step-sister who also does mission work, I'm sure both would appreciate the "stories" documented in Half the Sky.

Kate said...

Wanda - I would definitely recommend this book to your cousin and step-sister. Hmm... Guatamala... there's a place I've never been to... closest I've been is El Salvador. Like I mentioned in my post, there's not so much from Latin America in this book, but a lot of the themes are universal.