Book Discussion: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide | Wilson Center

Book Discussion: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

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Putting a Face on Statistics

"We tried to blend the importance of statistics and research, with the reality of what's on the ground," said Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author Sheryl WuDunn at a Wilson Center discussion of her new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, on September 10. Half the Sky tells the transformational stories of women and girls who are the "face of statistics" on four appalling realities: maternal mortality, sexual violence, and lack of education and economic opportunities.

"In general, the humanitarian community—whether it is the UN, NGOs, or journalists—have not done a great job in calling attention to humanitarian issues… the messaging does not connect," argued Half the Sky's co-author Nicholas D. Kristof. "People want to be a part of something positive," he said, so the book attempts to "build an emotional connection with the issue."

As in the Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky," empowering women and girls will unleash "the greatest unexploited economic resource" and may be our best strategy for fighting poverty, claim Kristof and WuDunn.

Localized Problems: Localized Solutions

"Localized problems need localized solutions," said Aparajita Gogoi, national coordinator of White Ribbon Alliance-India (WRA) and country director for CEDPA. "We know how to prevent women and children from dying needlessly. What we are not doing is actually implementing those solutions, and the reason for this is different for every country."

In India, maternal mortality rates are high not just because of a lack of access to health care, but also because of societal norms. "Women do not have access to education…and lack decision-making power. Solutions have to come from within countries and within societies," said Gogoi.

Social empowerment programs and town hall meetings held by WRA and CEDPA allow women to speak openly and safely about maternal health with policymakers, members of parliament, and health service providers. "Once the women and policymakers came together it was very moving for the policymakers…[and] 1,000 times more effective than people like us going in to talk with the policymakers and government officials," maintained Gogoi.

Maternal Mortality: A Holistic Approach

"The big problem is access, but at which level," argued Jérémie Zoungrana, national advisor to WRA in Burkina Faso and Rwanda and country director for Jhpiego-Rwanda. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5 needs to be addressed from top to bottom, beginning with the Ministry of Health and moving to the cultural barriers that prevent women from seeking health services.

In Burkina Faso, Zoungrana said that often women do not know that maternal health services are available or distrust the health care workers. However, overcoming this distrust is not impossible. Through his work with the WRA and Jhpiego, he tries to "link to the community, and from the community, to the decision-maker," to empower families through education.

Investing in Family Planning

"In some ways maternal mortality has been a loser," argued Kristof, pointing out that infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria have received significantly more political attention and funding. "The stove-piping approach can get in the way of making progress on this issue," he said. For example, "one part of reducing maternal mortality is also improving family planning so that people are actually having fewer births."

In a video interview, Kristof told ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko, "Poor countries can't begin to deal with food issues, economic pressures, conflict, and shortages of water…unless they begin to deal with population problems." History shows that success in reducing maternal mortality—such as Sri Lanka's—is usually accompanied by strong support for educating girls and providing reproductive health services, including family planning.

Bridging the "God Gulf"

To create this support, we must first bridge the "God Gulf," which Half the Sky calls the major gap between secular liberals and religious conservatives on the issue of family planning. The disagreements between these groups "has really hobbled our ability to make more progress on sex-trafficking and maternal mortality," said Kristof. "There has to be greater effort to try and get all sides in the room and work on areas of common agreement."

"We are really going to make progress on women's rights globally, not so much from just passing laws from above, and not just by recruiting presidents and prime ministers, but by really having a broad grassroots social movement and changes of priorities. And when people lead, politicians will follow," said Kristof.

Drafted by Calyn Ostrowski and edited by Meaghan Parker.


  • Nicholas Kristof

    Author and Columnist, The New York Times
  • Sheryl WuDunn

    Author and Investment Adviser
  • Aparajita Gogoi

    National Coordinator, White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood-India; Country Director, Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA)
  • Jérémie Zoungrana

    National Adviser, White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood-Burkina Faso and Rwanda; Country Director, JHPIEGO-Rwanda; and Manager, Safe Birth Africa Initiative, ACCESS