Half the Sky
by Fiona Crawford - April 11th, 2012
You have to psyche yourself up to read a book like Half the Sky, not because it’s not an excellent read (it is), but because you know you know your blinkers are about to come off.*
You know, the ones that enable you to temporarily forget—or even not know—that there are an inordinate number of atrocities being committed around the world and that a disproportionate number of those are being enacted with regularity upon women.
In fact, it took me about 17 attempts to read Half the Sky, with the first few involving me selecting it from the bookshelf, pausing, then placing it back on there. I wanted to give it my full attention when I did crack the spine. Truthfully, some days I just couldn’t bring myself face its contents.
The other 14-odd attempts saw me reading it in small chunks and dog-earing pages (please hold the hate mail—the dog-earing is because the info is too important to not mark for future reference). And gosh there was a lot of eye-opening, dog-earing-worthy content.
The first half of the book is pretty hard going. It’s well-written, easy to understand, and in no way overtly graphic. But it’s hard because the content involves details of women who were, for example, raped, forced into prostitution, who fell pregnant and had their children imprisoned to keep them compliant, and who had their eyes gouged out and the like for disobedience.
Those harrowing moments lead to chapters with details of too-high maternal mortality rates, and, later, genital mutilation and gang rape. I will admit to flipping forward in despair that I might not be able to read an entire 300-page book about such awful acts and circumstances.
I don’t think I’ll ever get the image out of my head, for example, of girls who were gang raped by so many men and who received so little care that they had maggots in their vaginas. That or the thought of a poorly informed midwife jumping on a woman’s stomach to help move things along after the woman had been in labour for days.
The book’s not all dire, though, and even the horrific tales aren’t without hope. That’s the key message of Nicholas D Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book: women are the solution and that an investment in women’s education yields the highest, most effective return.
In their own words:
The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the battles of the twentieth century […] In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.
Half the Sky derives its title (bizarrely) from Mao, who (logically) recognised the value of women and their contribution, and decreed that women ‘hold up half the sky’ (the rest of his logic and actions, of course, weren’t as exemplary).
The book aims to raise awareness about and help address women’s treatment around the world and to highlight their invaluable worth and humanity. It necessarily conveys the often-depressing, often-dire circumstances, but it demonstrates more and more strongly the solutions. What’s more, it shows how the solutions are often simple, grassroots, and require only small financial outlays.
Which is what I loved. Half the Sky made me incredibly angry, but it also gave me a proactive avenue through which to channel that anger. The book’s extensively researched and carefully written—a testament to experienced journalists Kristof and WuDunn’s commitment to deliver water-tight work and to prevent the crucial message being hijacked by nitpicking (Invisible Children’s derailed Kony 2012 campaign springs to mind as a good message that’s gotten lost in the mire of pedants and haters).
The above reasons are also why my issue with the book is not some flaw I noticed, but with how to do it justice on this blog. My plan had been to give insight into the book’s contents via the pages I’d marked, but there are truly too many to count much less explain.
I kept marking pages and making mental notes to remember facts they communicated in clear, compelling terms. I need to know these, I kept telling myself. I need to be able to refer to this and this and this and this … with each piece of information I must remember slipping from my sieve-like brain within minutes.
Helpfully, Kristof and WuDunn have included quick-reference information and resources at the book’s end. There’s ‘Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes’ followed by an appendix that alphabetically catalogues groups that specialise in helping women (and that have passed their litmus test for being above-board and heavy-lifting).
If you’re still keen, you can then tackle their comprehensive notes outlining where they got their facts and figures. Me, I’m still working my way through the appendix.
There’s also a BBC series coming out based on Half the Sky, which I hope will air in Australia at some stage. I can’t wait to see the book brought to life and hope that the show will help cement the book’s important messages in my mind.