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The Book a Week Project: “Half the Sky”

This week, I was up until three every night at the Gloria Shields Workshop in Dallas, TX, for yearbook, so reading was pretty difficult. Luckily there were two nine-hour bus rides that gave me ample opportunity to get my reading done. My book of choice was “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof and WuDunn are married and both write for The New York Times. They are also a Pulitzer Prize winning duo for their story about the Tiananmen Square protests in China. They are iconic for telling stories of human rights struggles, and “Half the Sky” is 252 pages of straight struggle.

The book is full of stories of women who were raped, killed, forced into prostitution, attacked and overall oppressed. The stories are brutal and honest, and Kristof and WuDunn don’t beat around the bush when they talk about the gory details. It is meant to provoke emotion, and it certainly did with me. After every story, I’d have to take a break reading, as I found them emotionally draining. I kept coming back to the book, though, because I knew there was always a chance that the woman would have her revenge, or she’d turn out fine.

The book is chalk full of stories. Some of them can blend together, but a couple stick out to me as ones that are representative of what the book is about. The first is about a girl who was forced into prostitution. Her story is the same as many girls who are in the same boat: her family needed more financial assistance, a friend of a friend knew someone who could set her up as a dishwasher or something in another country, she gets there and she’s actually beaten, drugged and raped.

Kristof goes into a brothel and finds her and establishes a dialogue that shows he’s not there for sex, and after hearing her story, buys her from the brothel. He returns her to her family, where she promises to stay, and he helps her establish a life there. Soon after, she runs away, back to the brothel. She is addicted to drugs, and she was going through severe withdrawal.

This story is an example of one that doesn’t have a happy ending. It is sandwiched between so many that do, but it stuck out to me because it helped me realize how hard it really is to stop the sex trade. I look at all of the organizations dedicated to trying, and I can’t help but think none of it is enough. That thought is daunting but almost exciting, since there is so much room to help.

Another story that really stuck out to me was one that took place in a small Indian village. A man had established that he was pretty much top dog there, and no one should mess with him, or they’d get raped and murdered violently. We’ll call him Bunny for storytelling purposes. This went on for some time, and the police didn’t really care because it was happening to the lowest class of people and they accepted bribes from Bunny.

There was one woman in the village, however, who went to college, which made her higher class than the rest of the people in their village. Everyone loved her, but Bunny was threatened by her. When she went to the police to report the rape of her friend by Bunny, they had to listen because of her class. When Bunny found out, he flipped his lid, surrounded her house, and threatened to gang rape her. She turned on the gas in her house and got a box of matches and basically said, “I dare you.” Bunny backed off and then all of the ladies in the village went and burned down his house, so he filed a police report.

In court, all of the ladies showed up, and as he walked down the aisle, he turned to one and threatened to rape her. She took out her knife and stabbed him, with all of the ladies from the village following suit, like they were straight out of Julius Caesar. Now, I don’t think murder is the best solution to things, but Bunny was a pretty sick dude, so I couldn’t really help giggling and screaming, “You go girl!” a couple times. Plus, no one got in trouble for the murder, since all of them did it, and the killing wound couldn’t be located. It’s like a super win-lose situation.

There are tons of stories in the book that elicit strong emotions, but those two were the ones that I loved. This book is not one for the person looking for some fluffy pool-side reading. It is powerful and heartbreaking and potentially depressing, but I saw it as inspiring. These problems aren’t going away anytime soon, and few people are aware of them. This book is a giant PSA and I encourage anyone who cares about humanity to take a look, for at least a couple pages. Maybe you won’t get a response like mine, maybe you will, or even better, you’ll be so horrified that you’ll go and do something right away rather than blog about it. I’m down with any of those results, because at least you’ll know.

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