Book Reviews

Book by: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Review by: Lauren McCarthy
College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
University of Minnesota Twin Cities


The Boko Haram kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian school girls and the attempted murder of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan made headlines and instigated responses like the #bringbackourgirls campaign. Yet girls and women worldwide encounter challenges, indignities, and danger each day without the benefit of a social media hashtag. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, a married journalistic team, wrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide to shed light on these women and to reveal possible solutions to the systemic injustices they face. While it is often an unsettling book, Half the Sky is a relevant read for college students open to turning their gaze to international issues, as well as for academic advisors working with them.

Half the Sky focuses primarily on women and girls living in Asia and Africa, and the authorial lens is more than just journalistic -- WuDunn and Kristof are active participants in their subjects' lives. To illustrate the harrowing experiences of girls sold into sex slavery and the difficulty of returning to a "normal" life, they describe the outcomes of two Cambodian girls whose freedom Kristof purchased. There are no simple answers (one of the girls returned to her brothel to nurse her meth addiction), and Kristof and WuDunn analyze the complexities of law, policing, and social and cultural norms. The section on prostitution and slavery may be particularly relevant to students and advisors in the social sciences, social work, and pre-law areas.

Another major topic of the book is women’s health. This section may speak more directly to students and advisors who are pre-medicine, nursing, or public health-oriented. Kristof and WuDunn have found many compelling stories to illustrate the larger statistical horrors that they are trying to draw a comfortable Western reader's eye to. In a chapter about maternal mortality, they even acknowledge the numbing effect that numbers can have, and then go on to give one specific and inspiring story. It is a good example of marshaling facts and stories to support an overarching theme -- perhaps a useful read for students preparing to write a senior thesis or capstone project.

Many college students brim with idealism to "save the world," but it is hard to turn that hope into reality. The book seems like a particularly good fit for study abroad advisors. Students considering study abroad in Europe or Australia would be well-served by reading Half the Sky to uncover the rarely discussed concerns of education and empowerment of women in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Kristof and WuDunn include an appendix of organizations that could certainly serve as a resource for students wanting to learn more about the specific challenges and solutions described.

While Half the Sky is not a traditional selection for an advisor's bookshelf, it has relevance for students and advisors across many disciplines: anthropology, economics, area studies, women's studies, pre-medicine, public health, pre-law, and political science, just to start. It is not an emotionally easy read, and advisors working with students who have experienced abuse or assault may want to provide caution and context when recommending it. Half the Sky is likely to turn readers into activists and donors, because it is impossible not to be moved by the plight and the promise of the girls and women described within its pages. 


Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. (2009). Book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Review by Lauren McCarthy. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday. 318 pp., $15.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-307-38709-7

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