I remember an assignment I was given in junior high to write an essay about a social issue which I would like to see changed. My feminism must have budded early because I chose to write about equal pay for women. I remember going into the library and not finding much on the topic besides books from the 1980s. Of course, I didn’t really know how to find current information back then, but the experience still left me with a satisfied feeling that maybe women overall weren’t doing so bad. Maybe we had made the important strides in equality and it was time to move on to other social issues. Although my life and education have long since changed that incredibly naïve perspective, nothing could have prepared me for the harsh realities of women’s status in large parts of the world I encountered in reading Half the Sky.
What started as a book by Pulitzer Prize winning couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky has turned into a movement spurred by the modern day slavery, persecution and human trafficking which results in the disappearance of at least 2 million girls every year. Whether through forced prostitution, gender-based violence, or maternal mortality, the number of missing women in the world is now between 60-100 million. The book tells stories of the gender discrimination faced everyday by women in countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What many of us have learned to take for granted, women in these countries do not even have a taste of. They are robbed of education, the chance to work, basic health care, and often their very freedom. As they face daily risks of being ripped from their families and sold to brothels, they find they have no where to turn for help. Prevalent in these communities are corrupt officials and the general attitude that things have always been this way and they always will be.
It’s hard to face the idea that the real roots of the problem I ignorantly used to think was going away are still so deep, so widespread, so ignored. The key that Kristof and WuDunn present to turning this trend around is for the world to realize this is not a “women’s issue” anymore than slavery in the U.S. was an African-American issue. It is even beyond just being a human rights issue. It is an issue of economy. The term “half the sky” references the fact that women make up more than half the world’s population. For a poor nation to turn a blind idea to the oppression of half their population is to lose out on the stimulation and growth that half could bring to their economy through labor, land ownership, and entrepreneurship. Without giving these opportunities to women, a poverty-stricken country is likely to remain that way. It will take a big change in these male-dominated regions to see the benefits of this perspective and for governments to focus their time and resources on improving the general welfare of their female population. It will take these issues becoming at the forefront of the human rights agenda. However, it is my hope that this movement will be ongoing, it will catch fire, and someday my great-granddaughter won’t be so naïve in thinking that we’ve come a long way in equality.