Changing the world: How are gender justice and social transformation achieved?

Elizabeth Hill, The University of Sydney

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn Half the Sky: How to Change the World, London, Little, Brown, 2010 (352 pp). ISBN 9-78184408-682-5 (paperback) RRP $27.95.

Writing a book on how to change the world is a bold project. But Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn from The New York Times have done just that in Half the Sky: How to Change the World. Perturbed by the failure of their profession to publish stories on what they label the global ‘gendercide’ (p. xviii), Half the Sky is Kristof and WuDunn’s personal effort to put on the public record the systemic violence that is killing and maiming millions of girls and women every year. As two-time winners of the Pulitzer Prize the authors are skilled storytellers who pen compelling stories of women’s experiences of violence, violation, exploitation and death at the hands of communities and governments that deny women and girls the opportunity to live in peace and safety. The book is based on the authors’ observation that ‘in much of the world discrimination is lethal’ (p. xvi). So pervasive is the global culture of gendercide that Kristof and WuDunn conclude that violence against women is ‘one of the paramount human rights problems of this century’ (p. xiii) and great moral and humanitarian challenges of our time. They go on to argue that the liberation of women could help solve many of the world’s problems—from child mortality to terrorism—and conclude that women’s empowerment should be a US foreign policy objective. Seldom are such strong claims made for women’s rights and empowerment.

But getting women’s empowerment onto the foreign policy agenda of countries like the United States is no easy task. Kristof and Wudunn argue that building political will at the national level will require an engaged and highly motivated electorate. And this is where their book comes into play. Half the Sky is written with the explicit aim to educate individuals and create a 21st century movement for women’s emancipation equivalent to the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. The great abolitionist William Wilberforce is Kristof and WuDunns’ role model. Just as Wilberforce went about explaining to the English in meticulous detail what conditions were like on the slave ships and plantations, Kristof and WuDunn document the conditions of violence, violation and neglect that mean millions of girls are never born, millions more die before they reach the age of five years, and millions of those that survive are forced into sexual slavery, die in childbirth and suffer burnings, bashings and mutilations by community elders intent on ‘protecting’ family honour. Kristof and WuDunn use data in moderation. They argue that ‘while numbers are persuasive … it is individual stories that move people to act’ (p. 111). In Half the Sky we hear the stories of real women and real girls the authors have met and spoken with—sometimes over a period of years. We meet teenagers like Srey Rath from Cambodia and Naina from India who are held as against their will and forced to work as prostitutes. We are introduced to women like Zoya Najabi from Afghanistan who suffered intolerable beatings from her husband and in-laws, and Prudence Lemokuono from Cameroon who dies in childbirth on account of an ineffective health system and systemic disregard for rural women. These and other stories of unspeakable violence against women and girls are told out loud for all to hear.

It is not just tales of violence and devastation that fill the pages of Half the Sky. The book is primarily a call to arms, a motivational text that goes beyond documenting myriad forms of gender injustice, to tell readers what is being done across the world to free women and girls from oppressive environments and provide them with opportunities to live dignified and healthy lives. Stories of hope and transformation are carefully recounted as the counter to the global gendercide. We learn about Mukhtar, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in Pakistan who built a school for girls in her village with the money she received as compensation for a gang rape and runs an organisation that provides legal advice, a phone hotline and a shelter for battered women (pp. 79–89). And Edna Adan who built a women’s hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia where poor women can access maternal healthcare. Edna is a leading women’s health advocate and a fierce opponent of female genital mutilation (pp. 137–144). The courage of women like Mukhtar and Edna in resisting community sanctioned gender violence cannot be overstated. But for some women, change has not come fast enough. Prudence was so ill from the effects of an obstructed delivery that even an urgent blood transfusion was unable to save her from a gruesome death that left her husband a widow and her three children motherless.

As a book on gender, development and social transformation, Half the Sky raises some of the big issues: What is the role of women in economic and social transformation? What is the role of the state and public policy? What role should outsiders play? These questions have been debated over and over in the development literature and continue to be highly contested amongst development practitioners, policy makers and social scientists. Kristof and WuDunn have come to some of their own conclusions but these do not always gel with—and sometimes overlook—current research evidence.


Abolitionist William Wilberforce is Kristof and WuDunns’ role model.

Half the Sky argues that women are effective instruments of socio-economic change: ‘women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity’ (p. xix). Citing the economic growth and poverty reduction that came to East Asia once women were educated and drawn into the labour market, Kristof and WuDunn argue that women are critical to successful development. The benefits of women’s development are also found at the household level. There are many studies that show how women tend to use extra economic resources to promote the well-being the household, while the men tend to spend it on their own ‘leisure’ activities such as alcohol and gambling. Educating women and girls also has a positive effect on fertility rates, child nutrition and education (Sen 1999).

This positive relationship between women’s development and broader socio-economic objectives is now conventional wisdom and is often used to justify public and private ‘investment’ in women’s health, education and employment. With the push to professionalise and optimise international aid and development efforts, poverty alleviation and human rights programs are subject to the rigours of cost-benefit analysis and impact evaluations applied in other industries. Investing in women has become a strategic pathway to the fulfilment of many other development objectives. This instrumental approach to women as effective agents of poverty alleviation and development is now so mainstream that even global investment houses such as Goldman Sachs and centres of military power such as the Pentagon are discussing gender and development as key investment and peace strategies (p. xxii).

It is true that there is a powerful ‘business case’ for funding girls’ education, maternal health care programs and micro-loans. It is also true that where this instrumental approach has been adopted, politicians and global development organisations have been more willing to fund programs for women’s development. In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn advocate for women’s rights using the same instrumentalist approach—what’s good for women is good for the world. While there is solid research evidence to support this claim, the stories Kristof and WuDunn have so poignantly captured tell us that women should have access to education, health care and credit not just because it benefits others, but because these are basic human rights that need to be available to all—women and girls included. Women like Mahabouba who suffered a debilitating fistula (pp. 105-109) because of the failure of the state to provide proper maternal care should receive basic health care because it is the right and humane way to treat citizens, not just because it will improve national maternal mortality rates.

Like many in the global women’s movement Kristof and WuDunn are caught in an awkward position. On one hand they advocate for gender equality based on their humanitarian conviction that freedom, security and peace are women’s rights. On the other is their sense of political pragmatism that reminds them women’s empowerment is an easier ‘sell’ if there are concrete economic and social benefits that meet other strategic political and development objectives. However, women’s empowerment should be an end in itself, not merely the means to development. The stories of individual women in Half the Sky shout their humanity out loud. This is what we need to hear and respond to, not just their capacity to deliver a decent ‘return’ on development investments. It is the injustice of women’s lived experience that provokes the strong moral case for change. Other strategic benefits are secondary.


Women’s empower-
ment should be an end in itself.

Another much debated issue in global development circles is how social transformation occurs and what the best catalyst for change is. Kristof and WuDunn are sceptical about the role of new laws and international conventions in improving the lives of poor women, arguing that ‘westerners invest too much effort in changing unjust laws and not enough changing culture by building schools or assisting grassroots movements.’ (p. 74). Of course they are right that just laws only achieve so much. In many developing countries the rule of law is compromised by a weak state and corrupt officials. India is an example of a country with an enlightened constitution and progressive laws aimed at securing social justice for the poor, but where implementation is patchy at best and corrupt at worst. The implementation ‘gap’ makes local solutions to gender violence and exploitation sometimes the most effective approach because of their sensitivity to local attitudes and politics. Senegal has made female genital mutilation or ‘cutting’ illegal. But because the practice is linked to traditional attitudes about sexuality and marriage the law has been impotent. Instead it was local organisation, Tostan, who understood that whole villages and the villages they organise marriages with had to be educated on the health and human rights issues related to the practice of cutting. Kristof and WuDunn document how this ‘soft approach’ empowered village elders to abandon the practice (pp. 249–251).

But local responses can never be enough. They are too small and fragmented to meet the challenge of the global gendercide Kristof and WuDunn document so convincingly. Poverty, violence, exploitative working conditions and voicelessness are produced and sustained through a complex interplay of cultural and economic injustices expressed at every level of society (Fraser 1995). Combating systemic violence and exploitation demands an equally complex response in which public action is essential (Drèze & Sen 1993). International conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and ILO conventions on paid maternity leave (C183) and home-based work (C177) for example, play an important role in building a just social order at the national and local level by providing international benchmarks and a focus for national women’s organisations advocating for women’s rights. The implementation of gender-sensitive laws at the national level can also provide a rallying-point for activists and legal support for local initiatives. In the battle for gender justice institutions and attitudes at every level of society require change if the conditions of freedom and peace are to be delivered to every women and girl. The state has a powerful capacity to deliver the institutional environment that supports local organisations work towards gender justice.


The final and most contentious issue Kristof and WuDunn raise is the role of ‘outsiders’. Half the Sky is a book for outsiders, in particular Americans. It is an invitation to become aware and to get involved in activities that aim to secure justice and empowerment for poor women: ‘So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty’ (p. xxiv). From the preface right through to the final chapter ‘What you can do’ and ‘ Four steps you can take in the next ten minutes’, the fundamental premise of Kristof and WuDunn’s book is that outsiders have a role to play in the battle against global gendercide. And they do—supporting local movements for change and advocating in the interests of poor women in international fora. But Kristof and WuDunn seem to argue for a much more fundamental role for outsiders as they list how we can get involved in what they call an ‘incipient’ movement for change.

Local responses can never be enough.

The first thing to point out here is that the movement to fight global poverty is not ‘incipient’. It is well established. Beginning as a fringe movement among faith communities, environmentalists and progressive political groups, the movement was mainstreamed—for better and worse—with the Band Aid/Live Aid efforts of the mid-1980s. Since then many efforts for gender justice and peace have developed around the world including the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaigns of the late 1990s and the more recent Make Poverty History global coalition. Outsiders travelling across the seas to intervene in the lives and livelihoods of poor communities is also not new. Missionaries and merchants were the first to get involved. But by the 1950s western interventions were being formalised as development economics became a discipline and economists in the West started to instruct countries with a colonial past on how to industrialise. Foreign aid was an integral part of the development project and continues today.

Many scholars and writers have argued against the capacity of foreign aid and philanthropy to benefit poor countries and poor communities—William Easterly (2006), Christopher Hitchens (1995) and most recently Dambisa Moyo (2009) are amongst the better known critics who write for a broad audience. Kristof and WuDunn are also ambivalent about the role of bilateral aid. They are however, more positive about the capacity of foreign individuals to make meaningful contributions to women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation. Half the Sky showcases a selection of interventions for gender justice being made by individual American women and uses these to encourage readers to get involved. These interventions fall into two main approaches. First there is direct action. This involves deep immersion in a local context, through actions like that of Harper McConnell, who volunteers at the HEAL Africa Hospital in the Congo and has organised a school for children awaiting medical treatment and a skills training program for women awaiting their treatment. The second approach is a supporting role. This includes raising awareness and money for organisations working for gender justice, writing letters to local politicians to support national legislation or international conventions that shine a light on injustices. In response to the Bush Administration’s withdrawal of $34 million for reproductive health programs administered by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), Jane Roberts co-ordinated an American effort to raise the $34 million. Her idea was that 34 million American women send the UNPF a dollar each. As people contributed the campaign was formalised and eventually ‘34 million friends of UNPF’ raised $4 million before the Obama administration restored funding (pp. 162–165). At the back of the book is a list of organisations the authors suggest are worth supporting (pp. 281–284) and a website provides further information on resources, blogs, reader forums and ideas for how people can get involved in action to support gender justice.

The movement to fight global poverty is not ‘incipient’.

The stories Kristof and WuDunn recount of American women who are taking action aimed at benefiting poor girls and women in different parts of the world are remarkable and sometimes moving. However, there is a certain naïvety to a book that elevates the actions of individual foreigners over the thousands of long term, sustainable movements for gender justice led by millions of local African and Asian women. In India, for example, the women’s movement has a long and vibrant history of advocacy for women’s rights and security. The modern women’s movement was established in the crucible of the Independence struggle and since then thousands of charismatic women have worked across the subcontinent organising tens of millions of urban, tribal, dalit, peasant, Muslim, Hindu and Christian women to secure gender justice in their own contexts (Gandhi & Shah 1992). Two women stand out among the many: Ela Bhatt and Vandana Shiva.

Ela Bhatt is a well-known trade unionist from Gujarat in the west of India. Bhatt was trained as a lawyer and worked for the Textile Labour Association. In 1971 a small group of women workers who were tired of being sidelined by male trade unionists approached Bhatt to support their application to form their own union—an all women’s union called the Self Employed Women’s Association or SEWA. The union was finally formed in April 1972. SEWA organises women who are amongst the most exploited workers in the world, working as daily labourers, small producers and home based workers for very low wages and with no social security. Their work is often dangerous and irregular (Hill 2010). After more than 30 years of organising SEWA has a membership of almost one million working women (Self Employed Women’s Association 2008, p. 7). These women organise themselves and their industries to secure economic security and well-being for themselves, their work sisters and their communities. Ela Bhat was the first General Secretary of SEWA, but the members of the union have driven the organising agenda, deliberating and deciding on what the best course of action should be to fulfil the union’s dual goals of full employment and self reliance (Hill 2008).

Dr Vandana Shiva, an Indian ecofeminist who won the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize, leads a farmers’ organisation called Navdhanya, which organises agricultural workers to create peaceful alternatives to the violence experienced by women and the earth by industrial models of agriculture. The Navdhanya movement collects and organises the ecological knowledge held by women farmers to develop sustainable farming practices. These include the establishment of seed banks to maintain and promote ecological diversity and nutrition, training for farmers in organic farming as well as the more public struggle to resist the commodification and patenting of natural resources such as seeds and water by global corporations such as Monsanto and Coca Cola.

Rave reviews are a stark reminder that the issues are not well known by the public.

SEWA and Navdhanya are just two examples amongst thousands of indigenous movements across Africa, Asia and Latin America that together organise hundreds of millions of women in the struggle for gender justice and peace. Collective action taken by women who belong to organisations like SEWA or Navdhanya is a powerful tool for social transformation amongst very poor and disenfranchised women for two reasons. Firstly, membership-based organisations bring women who experience similar forms of violence, exploitation and marginalisation together. The social act of coming together in their own organisation provides women with social recognition and an identity. Women who are typically sidelined by mainstream economic, political and social processes report that when they come together with their sisters they experience positive changes in their levels of self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence (Hill 2010). Secondly, membership-based organisations can organise women to take collective action to improve their well-being and livelihoods. This may be in the form of seed banks that protect women farmer’s livelihoods and biodiversity at Navdhanya, or the establishment a trade or service co-operative for SEWA members (Hill 2010). By delivering social recognition and alternative non-exploitative forms of work and livelihood, membership-based organisations have the potential to empower poor and vulnerable women in deep and sustainable ways that individual outsiders can never replicate. Unfortunately Kristof and WuDunn downplay this vital pathway to peace and justice for poor women.


The causes of and solutions to women’s oppression and violence are tough issues to grapple with and Kristof and Wundunn are never glib in their presentation. They acknowledge the complexity of women’s lives, the socially embedded nature of their exploitation and oppression, and skilfully document how difficult it is for change to come about. They also make some controversial conclusions about how best to address sex trafficking: prohibition (p. 29) and the role of sweatshops and women’s employment: positive for women and national development (p. 232).

The book leaves the reader with some important truths: socio-economic transformation is a deeply complex and fraught process that does not always work no matter how much money or skill is invested. But we are also left with some controversial half-truths: that engaged motivated and well-resourced women in the west are well positioned to resolve problems of gender violence and poverty. Interventions by outsiders can make a difference. But poor women in the developing world are not dependent on wealthy foreign women for their liberty and empowerment. This is too simplistic an idea that is riddled with difficulties. Instead, the best chance for sustained empowerment and socio-economic transformation amongst poor and vulnerable women comes when local women organise themselves to address their own problems in their own context. Outsiders sometimes have important supporting roles to play, but not always. Kristof and WuDunn argue that lifting women lifts the world. This is true. But who does the lifting and how, remains contested.

Perhaps what is most surprising about Half the Sky is the way it has been lauded across the United States as a ‘powerful piece of journalism’ and ‘impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book’. Such accolades are remarkable because the terrain Kristof and WuDunn cover is all too familiar to development practitioners, scholars, health and public policy makers. However, the rave reviews are a stark reminder that issues the authors are raising are not well known by the public. If Half the Sky can put gender violence and injustice on the public agenda, then advocates of women’s empowerment must appreciate Kristof and Wudunn’s efforts. Rarely do human rights for women enjoy such a popular platform.


Drèze, J. & Sen, A. 1993, Hunger and Public Action, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Easterly, W. 2006, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, The Penguin Press, New York.

Fraser, N. 1995, ‘From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a post-socialist age’, New Left Review, no. 212, pp. 68–93.

Gandhi, N. & Shah, N. 1992, The Issues at Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India, Kali for Women, New Delhi.

Hill, E. 2008, ‘India: The Self Employed Women’s Association and autonomous organising’, in Women and Labour Organizing in Asia: Diversity, Autonomy and Activism, ed. K. Broadbent & M. Ford, Routledge Curzon, London, pp. 115–135.

Hill, E. 2010, Worker Identity, Agency and Economic Development: Women’s Empowerment in the Indian Informal Economy, Routledge, London.

Hitchens, C. 1995, The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice, Verso, New York.

Self Employed Women’s Association 2008, Annual Report 2008 [Online], Available: [2010, Nov 12].

Moyo, D. 2009, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Sen, A. 1999, Development as Freedom, Oxford, London.

Elizabeth Hill is a lecturer in political economy at The University of Sydney where she teaches economic development. She has lived and worked in India for five of the past fifteen years, researching various aspects of women’s work and care. Her most recent publication is Worker Identity, Agency and Economic Development: Women’s Empowerment in the Indian Informal Economy (Routledge, 2010).