“Women hold up half the sky.” –Chinese Proverb
No other book I have ever read has affected me the way this book has. This is a non-fiction book written by two journalists who are married who describe what it is like to grow up as a girl in much of the world. Kristof and WuDunn were journalists covering world events and human rights violations when they discovered that 200 million women are missing from the world. That’s 500 times more people killed than in the Holocaust. They were covering events like Tiananmen Square and being outraged that something that horrific could happen to ordinary citizens in China, when they learned that because of gender discrimination as many infant girls die unnecessarily every week in China as protesters who died in Tiananmen. Every year, another 2 million girls disappear because of gender discrimination. Gaining that knowledge led them to a crusade of telling the world these lost girl’s stories.
Kristof and DuWunn split up the book into different sections, the first dealing with twenty-first century slavery. There are more slaves in the world in 2012 than there were back during what we commonly think of as the time of slavery during the African slave trades. In these chapters, Kristof and WuDunn recount how common it is for peasant girls in parts of Asia and the Middle East to be kidnapped and sold into brothels. There they are slaves to the brothel owners and are often raped and beaten into submission. They are given drugs to make them compliant, but also far less tempted to run away when they become addicted. Little girls as young as 8 years old are sex slaves in brothels. This happens in 2012, people! How is this acceptable?!
The next few chapters, Kristof and WuDunn talk about mass rape as often a weapon of war against women in places like Africa and the Middle East. There is no faster way to break a civilization than to rape women to show how weak a culture is. Many times these women are gang raped and tortured to bring dishonor to a family. The worst place to be a woman in the world right now is the Congo where it is estimated that 90% of the female population has been raped. Kristof and WuDunn feature the stories of a few women who have spoken out against being raped (often victims of rape are raped again if they go to the police by the police, are shamed into killing themselves to save the family honor, etc.) and have done things to fight back and change their culture and how their culture views rape and women. Rape is more effective in killing a woman than actual poison.
Next Kristof and WuDunn talk about maternal mortality and how common it is for women to die in childbirth around the world. Any American reader should be shocked that our own maternal mortality is much higher than it should be. These chapters were my favorite because the authors discuss different heroes in the world doing something to help women give birth and survive. I’ve been a huge fan of Dr. Catherine Hamblin and the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital since she appeared on the Oprah Show for the first time over a decade ago. We Western women probably have never heard of a fistula, let alone live with something so easily fixable but so debilitating to African women. A fistula is a small hole that is formed in the vagina during obstructed labor that either creates a hole to the bladder wall or rectum, causing the victim to leak urine or feces constantly and uncontrollably. Dr. Hamblin treats fistula patients in Africa giving them back their dignity, their families, and their self-worth. Kristof and WuDunn talk about how easy it is to give women access to good maternal medicine and how it is just not a priority in some countries.
The next section of the book deal with ways to help poverty-stricken countries and women. Micro-lending through organizations like Kiva has done much to improve the quality of life for the women and men mentioned in the book. Kristof and DuWunn do a good job of describing what kind of aid actually helps, and what hurts. This was probably the most inspiring section as the authors chronicle ways that these countries have been helped through charitable entities. It has been proven that when you empower women, give them equal voice and say, that countries and culture profit for the better. You cannot discriminate against half your population and expect your country to succeed.
This book does a fine job of interspersing statistics and facts in with stories of real girls and real women. I found these stories so readable and fascinating that I couldn’t help but feel sucked in to their worlds. And I have found a new shero, Dr. Tererai Trent, a one-time victim of domestic violence, poverty, and illiteracy who went from being a cattle-herder in rural Africa to a woman with a doctorate degree. As a reader, I wept with these women, rooted for them, and was immensely humbled by their stories.
I felt my American priviledge just dripping off me with every page I read. Why did I deserve to be born in American? Why aren’t I living on the Saharan desert struggling to survive in my mud hut, raising more children than I can handle, being beaten by my husband because that is his right, possibly being infected with AIDs, and not even having the ability to write my own name? This is a reality for millions of women and here I sit on my laptop doing nothing. Until I read this book. Kristof and WuDunn have inspired me to give of my money, time and voice to help change the lives of these women for the better.
In the Appendix of the book, Kristof and WuDunn list organizations that the readers can get involved with to start helping these women change their lives for the better. I love that the book is named after the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” because you cannot discriminate, eliminate, silence, rape, and kill, half the population of the world and not have devastating consequences.
I beg, implore, plead with you to read this book. It will change your life. I promise.
The book ends with one of my most favorite quotes:
“You must be THE CHANGE you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Ghandi