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Published Date: January 31, 2012

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Book Review: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is intended for a broad readership with the aim of uniting those who might otherwise be divided because of their religious and political convictions. The authors, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, were the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism on an earlier project. They use their expertise to cast a light on the global sex trafficking industry of young women. They claim the problem has increased greatly in the last two decades because of the collapse of communism, the rise of globalization, and the fear of AIDS (11-12). They estimate there are two to three million prostitutes in India and even more in China (5-6). The underlying premise of the book is that such oppression results from a pervasive undervaluing of women by society. The authors draw a direct analogy with the justifications given for the enslavement of Africans in earlier centuries. The book’s title is based on a Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.”

Kristof and WuDunn make their argument in fourteen chapters, with an introduction, “The Girl Effect,” which seeks to explain why “107 million females are missing from the globe today” (xv). They claim “thirty-nine thousand baby girls die annually in China because parents don’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive” (xiv). A “bride burning” happens approximately every two hours in India, where one-to five-year-old girls are 50 percent more likely to die than boys the same age (xiv, xvi). There are five thousand “honor killings” a year, mostly in the Muslim world (82). The chapters feature heartbreaking interviews with brutalized women, living and deceased, often with their pictures. Stories of women fighting back are also included (52-53). The final chapter gives readers four steps they can take in the next ten minutes, such as joining the CARE Action Network.

The authors make their argument in an evenhanded way. They allow women to speak for themselves, giving the reader just enough background to appreciate their courage. This is journalism at its best. Men are not solely to blame; mothers often kill their own daughters: “no group systematically abuses young women more cruelly than mothers-in-law” (68).

WuDunn and Kristof want to join forces with evangelicals and Pentecostals. Both traditions are praised and gently challenged. Women in Pentecostal churches “find themselves exercising leadership and declaring their positions on moral and religious matters” (143). But they criticize elements of faith-healing, specifically the claim that “Jesus will protect its followers from AIDS” (143). Evangelicals are given high marks for their generosity and intent to help. But they take issue with former President George W. Bush’s religiously motivated decision to cut funding to healthcare organizations that provide abortions, such as UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund). In their view, this myopic policy faltered under the law of unintended consequences: “With the best of intentions, pro-life conservatives have taken some positions in reproductive health that actually hurt those whom they are trying to help—and that result in more abortions” (134). They note that UNFPA has prevented nearly 10 million abortions in China by providing broader healthcare for women.

Some evangelicals may also be challenged by the authors’ evolutionary explanation for why women die in childbirth (113). They also give little credit to abstinence-only programs (137). Kristof and WuDunn cite Deuteronomy 22:13-21 at the head of chapter 5, which, in isolation, requires the men of a village to stone a girl whose virginity cannot be established. Those who hold a high view of Scripture may be frustrated with the lack of hermeneutical discussion.

Half the Sky offers a secular argument, which empirically supports and opens a door to CBE’s unique mission: to show from Scripture and practice the equality of all human beings. I highly recommend the book for sensitizing Christians to the magnitude of this problem. Some talk in the church as if slavery is a matter of the past. Yet, the International Labour Organization estimates that, at any one time, there are 12.3 million human beings engaged in forced labor (9). Kristof and WuDunn offer an ambitious yet reasonable strategy: international cooperation, local leadership, economic opportunity, governmental reform, and education. Working toward the end of sex trafficking is a cause that all Christians, regardless of political or denominational affiliation, can support. My own community is beginning to stand with young women against the pimps and kidnappers (for more information, see