half the skyI recently finished reading Half the Sky by New York Times journalist Nick Kristof and his wife (and former New York Times journalist) Sheryl WuDunn. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The book takes a look at women’s rights throughout the developing world. It covers topics ranging from sex slavery and prostitution, to maternal health, to education for girls, told through a mix of first-person experiences and broader research-backed context.

The discussion around women’s rights in the West can sometimes feel stale. But in so much of the world, women are treated no better than livestock (they may even believe and perpetuate this line of thinking themselves). This book highlights some of the deep-seated cultural barriers that exist to tamp down the advancement of women around the world, and includes stories of local women who are effecting significant change. It was heartbreaking to read about women who get kidnapped on their way home from the market, who live in the shadows of brothers and husbands, and who accept their exploitation as the way it will always be. Or worse, about women who try to stand their ground and are beaten within inches of their life. It was also inspiring to read about how some women (and men) give up everything for a cause they believe in, and are slowly making progress in securing rights for their sisters.

How to help?
Since women’s rights is such a complex issue, dependent on changing perceptions and entire social systems, the book shows that supporting grassroots on-the-ground movements, rather than top-down foreign edicts, is often the best way to secure local buy-in and achieve lasting cultural change. It even posits that supporting the education and empowerment of women could be more impactful in reducing violence/terrorism and boosting foreign economies than the current system of “aid” through defense spending or subsidies.

The authors do not claim that education for women would be a panacea for all the world’s ills, but they do illuminate how strong women can positively impact families, villages, even whole nations — and, conversely, the damaging effects of ignoring half of a country’s people. This book is powerful. It includes tangible action steps you can take, and has certainly spurred me to channel more of my charitable giving to groups that support microfinance, health and education opportunities for women. It’s easy to get bogged down in my personal day-to-day; this book helped me take a broader look at the real struggles in the world.

Have you read Half the Sky? What struck you the most?