….let it be this one. Kris and I have both recently read this, as well as a good portion of Kris’s family, his sister wrote about it on her blog here. Here’s Kris’s review, which I am sharing with you because he articulated it so well:
I recently finished reading Half the Sky, and wanted to do a quick review of it. I will add to the voices of others, that this is one of
the most profound, important, tragic, compelling, shocking, yet hopeful books and call to action, that I have read.
This book focuses on injustices against women in our society, in the forms of sex trafficking/slavery, infant/child neglect, sexual manipulation, neglect of maternal health, and religious abuses. The book then looks at solutions in the forms of abolitionist efforts, maternal health support, education, microcredit, and advocacy. These topics are covered with engaging stories as well as carefully researched statistics and strategies.
Sex trafficking is certainly one of the most significant injustices to surface in modern society, and Kristof and Wudunn introduce the subject with both passion about the vast extent of this issue as well as moving personal narratives from individuals that have tragically suffered. They tell the brutal stories of abuse, forced addiction and abortions, and the hopelessness. They also have stories of rescues; complete with candid descriptions of their own challenges and even failures in trying to help girls.
Widespread exploitation of females doesn’t end with sex trafficking. Rape, abuse, acid attacks, and other brutal mechanisms used to degrade women, not just in isolated crimes, but in widespread, systematic strategies of oppression. The introduction alone is a powerful read, starting with the startling reality of the millions of females that are missing from our population, due partly to selective abortions, as well as neglect of small girls by families and societies that more highly value boys. One of the most profound revelations was how shockingly pervasive gendercide is. It is estimated that more people may have died simply for being female than in all wars in the last century.
The extent of easily preventable maternal health issues was also surprising to me. Admittedly this was difficult to read for me.
Epidurals make me slightly queasy, so the numerous stories of obstructed labor, ruptured uteruses, and fistula was painful to hear about. But I certainly don’t want to ignore these sufferings, obviously they are much worse to experience than to read about, and there are definitely vast opportunities to make an enormous difference in providing reasonable health care to pregnant women in the third world.
This book is not just about problems though. A large amount of the book is decidedly optimistic, showing how simple strategies and efforts have produced tremendous gains in giving women more opportunity, better protection and rights, and empowering not just women, but entire societies, as the incredible resource of women is not ignored. Small investments in education (particularly for educating girls) produce incredible returns, economical and socially. Microcredit has proven a valuable tool for helping women take the first steps towards economic viability. The book ends with very direct, concrete steps that you can take to make a real difference. I was left with far more inspiration than despair.
I wanted to add a few notes for the Christians reading this. First, the authors are definitely not Christian. Don’t let this be a turn off
though, they are incredible valuable lessons to be learned. It is to our own peril if we only listen to our own echos.
The authors’ views of the effects of Christianity from the perspective of third-world countries are fascinating. There are definitely torn between two different experiences. One one hand, Half the Sky clearly shows disgust for the impact of American Christianity’s politics. For example, when funding for health care clinics amongst refugees in Kenya, and the UNFPA suddenly dried up, due to vast restrictions enforced by contrived, mis-informed applications of the gag-rule that attempted to subvert funding to organizations related to abortion, it resulted in clinics that had nothing to do with abortion being unable to provide their critical services. Actions like this came across in places like refugees camp in Kenya with clear message. American Christianity was more self-interested
in it’s conservative political agenda and ideology than it was with helping save lives. It is estimated that UNFPA help avert 10 million abortions in China by assisting in a switch to copper UIDs, yet pro-life organizations opposed the very organization that was on the ground preventing abortions.
While the authors were clearly repulsed by the those that comfortably sit at home and push their ideological assumptions without regard for or knowledge of their impact, another breed of Christians left a markedly different impression. They note the abundance of various organizations in the urban areas, but as they headed out to remote, rural areas where poverty was at it’s worst and access to supplies and treatment was most difficult, it was predominantly Christian missionaries that dared to inhabit and help. The authors view these missionaries and their impact as nothing short of heroic. It was inspiring to hear that on the margins, amongst the most vulnerable, in the lowest depths, in the places and people that Jesus most identified with and defended, that the glory of the compassion and justice of Jesus’ is brilliantly and beautifully on display by a few deeply and radically committed followers.
The book also spends a chapter on Islam, and defending the tenets of Islam as being compatible with women’s rights. They actually suggest that the Koran values women more than the Bible. Don’t let this turn you off though (you don’t have to agree either, I don’t), but there is a valuable lesson here as well. They freely recognize Christian countries have a vastly better record on women’s right than Islamic countries, and simply shrug their shoulder, crediting Christians with doing a better job of avoiding false literalism. The central point they are making isn’t to tear down Christianity though, it is offer an a perspective to Muslim’s that they have a history that does not have to force them into degrading women. In Christian missiology this is a great example of effective use of finding “redemptive” elements of culture or history, and pointing to them as a way forward without destroying a culture. Finding bridges
for connecting and moving forward works much better than our tendency to vilify.
The other key lesson to learn is how important the implications of proper Biblical interpretation really is. I don’t believe that
Christians have arrived at better support for women’s rights by just incidently being a little better at interpretation. The Bible itself
gives us direction on how to interpret it. Jesus thoroughly condemned the religious leaders of his day who followed a legalistic literalism, recognizing how such an approach will take us down a dangerous path (including potential degradation of women). Jesus on the other hand, was constantly interpreting OT scriptures with contextualization, showing how the laws weren’t the end goal in of themselves, but were revealing God’s character, and pointing us on a trajectory forward that would continue to speak and be re-contextualized in other cultures and future generations in ways that would continually guide us forward in the path looking to the interest of others, caring for the weak and vulnerable, acting in humility. These ethics and ways that may take different forms,
but will transcend culture.
As a Christian who desires to be committed to following God’s vision for caring for, defending, and prioritizing the least of these, this book is an invaluable resource in guiding us with real world information about how we can participate in this goal. For those who are willing to listen, there is lot to be learned.
I also wanted into include a note in regards to Poor Economics, which I also recently finished and reviewed very positively. These books actually cover some similar ground. Esther Duflo, author of Poor Economics, helped edit Half the Sky and her research was extensively quoted. While Poor Economics gives many great stories, it is definitely more focused on a very specific on-the-ground developmental strategies, and detailed research results on these, replete with plenty of delicious statistics and correlations, the type of thing I relish. This book is perfect for those that are on the ground, and want to concrete information on the long term impact of different strategies. Poor Economics, while being focused on the science of economics, is still very accessible. However, for many, the more narrative-based, morally-driven approach of Half the Sky will certainly be more compelling and readable, as well profoundly moving.