Book review: ‘Half the Sky’ a tribute and a call to action -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Book review: ‘Half the Sky’ a tribute and a call to action

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
Vintage. $15.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Jennifer Lindsey



In “Half the Sky”—a book that has spawned a global movement—married co-authors Nicholas D. Kristof (a columnist for the New York Times) and Sheryl WuDunn (a former reporter for the Times) describe in painstaking and alarming detail the oppression and abuse faced by women around the world.

The book includes real stories of human trafficking and forced prostitution, insufficient prenatal and maternal care that leads to dire complications and sometimes death, “honor” killings and mass rapes.

It also includes stories about problems we encounter in our own work with Habitat, such as women’s lack of property rights and discrimination within communities that continues the cycle of poverty through generations.

The book would be discouraging—and indeed, it can be depressing as you read story after story of women who have suffered so much, merely because of their gender. But the authors also share stories of people—mostly women—who have fought back. These people have rescued women from brothels and then forced police to shut them down; opened hospitals and clinics in remote villages to deliver babies and care for mothers; and provided education and empowerment for women to learn about their rights and act upon them.

Many of the heroes in this book are former victims who made the decision they would no longer suffer and would not allow others to be victimized.

“Half the Sky” encourages this type of activism, now commonly referred to as social entrepreneurship. While a business entrepreneur recognizes an opportunity and focuses on financial growth, social entrepreneurs recognize a problem and focus on social change. They use creativity, connections and sheer determination to make things better.

In “Half the Sky,” most of the entrepreneurs’ activities started with small, grassroots projects to help a few women. These projects ultimately grew into clinics or organizations or broader initiatives to help many.

And with the support of the book’s readers and others, these organizations can continue to grow—saving lives, fighting oppression and ending abuse and poverty. “Half the Sky” ends with a list of grassroots projects and other organizations the authors recommend. They’ve seen them in action and can attest to their efficacy.

Reading about the social entrepreneurs of this book and the lives they have changed through their direct action is both inspiring and thought-provoking. As I was going through the book, I had moments of doubt about my own career focus. If I truly care of these issues and want to be a part of the change, shouldn’t I go out into the field, too? Shouldn’t I support a grassroots organization, help a social entrepreneur who has a vision and help her to see it come true?

And then I realized that all of us at Habitat are already doing that.

Millard Fuller was a social entrepreneur before the term became popular. He had a vision to end poverty housing; he started a grassroots organization to address it; and with the help of thousands of supporters around the world who shared his vision, the organization has now helped more than 1.75 million people get access to simple, decent shelter.

We can’t all be social entrepreneurs. Some of us are called upon to support the entrepreneurs’ efforts—using our expertise to continue their work, to educate people about problems, to find new and creative solutions working in collaboration with those we serve, and to seek funds to support the work we do.

“Half the Sky” offers a beautiful and sensitive portrait of many women who have suffered, a tribute to those who have taken action, and a challenge to all of us in development to continue the work we do.

Jennifer Lindsey is senior director of international communications at Habitat for Humanity International. For the past two years, she has worked in Bangkok, Thailand, assisting with the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project: The Mekong Build and leading HFHI’s global brand-building initiative. She is returning to her base in Washington, D.C., in June 2010.