The Moral Equivalent of Anti-Slavery

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95

Reading Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column is rarely fun. Week after week, he tries to humanize the world's most pressing problems through intrepid, immersive reporting, struggling to make his audience care the way he cares. Like his colleague Bob Herbert, he is relentlessly earnest -- both men insist on discussing things many would rather not hear about, and they are averse to glib contrarianism and snark. Kristof's moral urgency can seem hectoring, though that's not really his fault. It's an almost impossible task to channel outrage so consistently without leaving readers overwhelmed and tempted to tune out.

That's one reason why Half the Sky, written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, is particularly impressive. The book presents a catalogue of horrors, including sex slavery, obstetric fistula, female genital mutilation, gang rape, honor killing, and AIDS. The authors are clear-eyed about the difficulties facing those trying to make change, the failures of foreign aid, and the occasionally terrible unintended consequences of foreign interventions. Yet Half the Sky manages to be inspiring and engrossing rather than numbing.

The book's thesis is that the systematic abuse of poor women is the premier human-rights struggle in the world today. "In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery," Kristof and WuDunn write. "In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world." The analogy to abolitionism is helpful, because it underscores the enormity of the problem while suggesting it can be overcome.

In some ways, there's not much new in Half the Sky. In aid and development circles, it's pretty much conventional wisdom that women's oppression worldwide is both a moral and a geostrategic emergency. People from a whole range of fields have seen how the subordination of women destroys countless lives while contributing to economic stagnation, overpopulation, political instability, and the AIDS pandemic. That's why the Obama administration created the post of ambassador-at-large for global women's issues. It's why the humanitarian organization CARE has oriented its work around women and why the Nike Foundation now directs the bulk of its resources to girls' empowerment. It's why Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for AIDS in Africa, once told me, "The struggle for gender equality is the single most important struggle on the face of the planet."

Yet despite the expert consensus, the true scope of women's dehumanization worldwide and the toll it takes on the planet's prospects haven't really penetrated most people's consciousness. Which is why this book is so valuable. Half the Sky is filled with shocking statistics: "It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century," Kristof and WuDunn write. They estimate that 3 million people, the vast majority of them female, are trapped in sexual slavery. More than half a million women die of pregnancy-related causes every year, a figure than hasn't improved in decades. But as the authors well know, readers respond far more to individual narratives than to numbers, and the book is crammed with indelible, heartbreaking stories as well as concrete ways for anyone moved by them to make a difference.

I was particularly haunted by the story of an Ethiopian woman named Mahabouba Muhammad, who, as a young teenager, was sold to an old man named Jiad to become his second wife. Beaten by her husband and his first wife, she tried to run away several times, finally escaping when she was seven months pregnant. Unable to afford a midwife, she gave birth alone in a hut near an uncle's house, and because she was still just 14, her pelvis wasn't big enough to accommodate the baby's head. After a week of obstructed labor, the baby was dead, and Mahabouba was suffering from a fistula and nerve damage that left her unable to walk and constantly leaking waste. Residents of her uncle's village, believing she was cursed, put her in a hut at the settlement's edge and removed the door so hyenas would devour her.

Mahabouba stayed up all night fighting off the animals with a stick and then crawled to a nearby village, where she met a Western missionary who brought her to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Although she couldn't be completely repaired, she had a colostomy and physical therapy to get her back on her feet and eventually went to work at the hospital and learned to read and write. "Today, if you were to visit the hospital, you might well see Mahabouba walking around -- in her nurse's uniform," write Kristof and WuDunn. "She has been promoted to the position of senior nurse's aide."

This story is more than just a tale of personal triumph. It illustrates the many interconnected injustices that lead to reproductive-health disasters and shows why problems such as fistula are political as well as medical. And it shows how outsiders like Catherine Hamlin, the Australian gynecologist who runs the fistula hospital, can redeem the lives of the most forsaken women.

Kristof and WuDunn are advocates, but they are journalists first, and that means they don't shy away from pointing out failures as well as successes in the field. In fact, some of the book's most compelling sections are those that detail mistakes or upend assumptions.

Many readers of Kristof's columns will recall the time Kristof bought a girl who'd been imprisoned in a Cambodian brothel and set her free, only to see her willingly return to her jailers. That story gets new depth and texture here. There's also a fascinating and disturbing section about the Sonagachi Project, a sex-workers union in Calcutta, India. Sonagachi was organized with backing from the World Health Organization, and Western feminists have lauded it as a model. It seems, though, that there's a dark side. I once expressed admiration for Sonagachi to a woman who works at an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization and was taken aback when she snapped that it had become simply a front for pimps. Kristof and WuDunn's reporting indicates that she was right. Their research serves not only as an important exposé but as a reminder that ideology is no substitute for experience in figuring out how to help people.

Because WuDunn and Kristof are so honest about the failures of some well-meaning foreign-aid projects, they have a lot of credibility in countering critics like William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo who excoriate the whole aid enterprise. They've seen how the combination of grass-roots activism and international support can change both individual lives and seemingly unalterable cultural patterns. "Progress really is possible; challenges are insurmountable only until the moment that they're surmounted," they write. By the end of this galvanizing book, even inveterate pessimists may believe them.