Book Review: Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

“Mahabouba [a fourteen-year old Ethiopian girl, sold to a sixty-year old man to be his second wife] couldn’t afford a midwife, so she tried to have the baby by herself. Unfortunately, her pelvis hadn’t yet grown large enough to accommodate the baby’s head, a common occurrence with young teenagers. She ended up in obstructed labor, with the baby stuck inside her birth passage. After seven days, Mahabouba fell unconscious, and at that point someone summoned a birth attendant. By then the baby had been wedged there for so long that the tissues between the baby’s head and Mahabouba’s pelvis had lost circulation and rotted away. When Mahabouba recovered consciousness, she found that the baby was dead and that she had no control over her bladder or bowels. She also couldn’t walk or even stand, a consequence of nerve damage that is a frequent by-product of fistula…

Mahabouba’s uncle wanted to help the girl, but his wife feared that helping someone cursed by God would be sacrilegious. She urged her husband to take Mahabouba outside the village and leave the girl to be eaten by wild animals [women with fistulas are basically modern-day lepers because of the odour resulting from their incontinence]. He was torn. He gave Mahabouba food and water, but he also allowed the villagers to move her to a hut at the edge of the village.

‘Then they took the door off,’ she added matter-of-factly, ‘so that the hyenas would get me.’”

At once heart-breaking and hopeful, Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a collection of stories like the one above – stories of women struggling (particularly in Africa and Asia) under prejudice. Because of prejudice against women, women around the world are prevented from receiving an education, do not have access to healthcare, and are considered second-rate citizens by both the men in their lives, and by themselves. This prejudice results in slavery, prostitution, skyrocketing maternal mortality and morbidity rates, rape, selective abortion, and an inability to even dream of a life beyond abuse in which women can make meaningful contributions to society. The bright side of this book, however, is that there are solutions. As Kristof and WuDunn highlight an issue in each of their chapters, they also offer stories of those who are making a difference, whether through the development of fistula hospitals in Africa, offering incentives to Cambodian parents to keep their daughters in school, or creating opportunities for women to contribute to their families’ incomes through micro-financing.

Half The SkyThis book opened my eyes to the horrors women face around the world. The stories are captivating, and that is the intention; it has been proven that stories are more effective than statistics, and this book does an incredible job of incorporating both, while focusing on the lives of real women. This book moved me to want to do something (the authors include a very helpful closing chapter on what can be done, and an appendix of organizations that are actively working to see that girls and women have access to education, health care, freedom from abuse and trafficking, and business opportunities that can help them to elevate themselves and their families out of poverty). While I’m still processing how to apply what I have learned from this book, and what practical steps I will take, I cannot walk away from this book not doing anything.

One great step I (and you) can take, is to pray. In February, Michael and I will be leading an intercession time at YWAM Turner Valley based on the struggles and strategies we have learned about through this book. A note I must make about Half the Sky is that it is not written from a faith-based perspective. While this book is incredibly challenging, and the solutions offered are extremely hope-filled, prayer is missing from the equation. I encourage anyone interested in reading this book: take time to pray to read as you pray. Take time to ask God about His heart for the countless people who struggle in societies that do not value women. Take time to ask God how you can respond. Take time to ask God about the practical solutions offered in this book, and how you can contribute, shining the light of Christ into the world.

You are probably asking, “What happened to Mahabouba?” This fourteen year old girl had heard of a missionary in a nearby village. After a night of fending off hyenas, she crawled to the doorstep of that missionary. He saved her life, and took her to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital:

“There Mahabouba found scores of other girls and women also suffering from fistulas. On arrival, she was examined, bathed, given new clothes, and shown how to wash herself. Fistula patients often suffer wounds on their legs, from the acid in their urine eating away at the skin, but frequent washings can eliminate these sores.”

The hospital in Addis Ababa is run by Catherine Hamlin, an Australian gynaecologist who has devoted her life to transforming the lives of poor Ethiopian women. She has presided over more than 25,000 fistula surgeries, and has trained others in the practice. Though many women can move on to full recovery, Mahabouba had to settle for a colostomy, a procedure in which the patient has a hole made in the abdomen, so that feces can leave the body to be stored in a pouch that is regularly emptied. Colostomy patients require ongoing care.

At the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, Mahabouba was given access to education and a purpose for her life:

“At first Mahabouba simply changed linens or helped patients wash, but gradually the doctors realized that she was smart and eager to do more, and they gave her more responsibilities. She learned to read and write, and she blossomed. She found a purpose in life. Today, if you were to visit the hospital, you might well see Mahabouba walking around – in her nurse’s uniform. She has been promoted to the position of senior nurse’s aide.”

I highly recommend Half the Sky, but be warned: this book will open your eyes, move you to tears, and there will be no turning back. God does not equip us with knowledge to have us sit on it – we are called to action. I’ll be sure to follow up as to the action I take, and I encourage you to keep me accountable to that.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

  1. Pingback: Mid-January Resolutions | Michael & Helen Packard

  2. Pingback: Book Review: I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb | Michael & Helen Packard

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Bittersweet, by Shauna Niequist | Michael & Helen Packard

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