Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review: Half the Sky - Intro and Chapter One

"You may choose to look the other way
but you can never say again that you did not know."
                                                       William Wilberforce

The authors don't waste any time attempting to soft-peddle the subject of their book: the brutalization of women around the globe. They take the reader immediately to the story of a young Cambodian teenager, tricked into sexual slavery with the promise of a good job to help her family who were struggling to survive. They present her story in gruesome detail as an example of what is happening to young girls and women who are sold into sexual slavery. The horrors faced by this segment of the population, simply because of their gender, are outlined briefly as a springboard for understanding the reason this book was so important to the authors to write and so important for us to read.

From the first page on, the reader is introduced to the harsh realities of life, and, all too often, the premature death, of these women and girls. I definitely found myself hesitating to want to go past the first page. One example that I found stunning, and that I had never heard before, was that “five thousand women and girls have been doused in kerosene and set alight by family members...for perceived disobedience, just in the past nine years.” p. xiv The authors maintain that there would be an enormous protest if the governments were involved in this type of crimes against women. But, since they are not “directly involved, people shrug.” p. xiv

The authors describe this book as their own awakening to the issues of oppression of women. They didn't start out there, but, once confronted with the evidence before their own eyes, they found they could not turn away. Their book details the harrowing and life threatening conditions of women and girls trapped in a culture that takes away their dignity and reduces them to chattel to be used and abused at the whim of their captors. The positive part of the book is the dawning awareness, in the global community, of the epidemic proportions of the problem and, with that awareness, the development of opportunities to help rescue these women and restore them to dignity and a future. The book is a call to arms for the rest of the world to wake up and care enough to do something about the problem, instead of choosing to pretend it doesn't exist.

Some Questions for Discussion:

What surprised you the most about the stories in the Intro and Chapter One?

What was the most positive thing you took away from reading through Chapter One?

Do you find the material so disturbing that you would prefer not to read it? Did you have an emotional response to what the authors describe?

The authors mention the fight to free African slaves, led by William Wilberforce. What do you think of this comparison – is it valid? Should the Church become more actively involved in this battle, just as Wilberforce did in the eighteenth century? Or is this a “political hot potato” that the Church should stay out of?

The authors state that: “ any one time there are over 12.3 million people engaged in forced labor of all kinds, not just sexual servitude... And, The Lancet, a prominent medical journal in Britain, calculated that 'one million children are forced into prostitution every year and the total number of prostituted children could be as high as 10 million.” Do you wonder why, as I do, if the problem has reached these proportions, we hear so little about it from the press? I can't remember the last time I heard a news story about this issue...

Note to the Reader: Please feel free to comment on any of the questions above, or, offer your own question or comment on this material.

We will cover Chapter Two next Friday. Hope you can join us.


  1. I found the stories of the fight to survive and overcome, against all odds, to be absolutely amazing and humbling. Reading the horrific story of Meena, in Chapter One, moved me enormously. The thought of being used in the way that she was, giving birth to two children, having them taken away to be used in the same way, is more than most of us could bear. And yet, the depth of love she had for her children and the fight she waged to free them from the nightmare they were living, was inspirational to say the least. The horrors of this life are, for most of us, thankfully, unimaginable. But the human instinct to fight for dignity is equally amazing. I am grateful for the balance the authors bring to this real life human tragedy. Without the hope of rescue and restoration, this would not even be readable...

  2. "Half the Sky" the title intrigued me and now I have found myself immersed in this book. I have not discovered yet, why the author chose this title but, I am sure it will be revealed at some point.
    At times, I have chosen a book because of the recommendation of another and that is the case here. So, thank you, Maureen, for bringing this to my attention. As I read of this unspeakable suffering of children I realize it must be spoken of.
    The traffikers choose young girls because the rapists don't want to risk contracting diseases. This is sickening. It is literally a "rape camp" that is allowed to exist because the authoritative officials of the land are involved!!!
    Meena's story describes all the trauma and terrible suffering a very young girl experiences. Her case gives hope because she escaped, but I know in reality many innocent girls have to be dying from the beatings, diseases, sickness, and neglect.

    1. Dear Anonymous - I appreciate you taking the time to read the book and join in the discussion. I believe the title of the book was taken from the Chinese proverb "Women Hold Up Half the Sky". The female half of the authorship of the book is Sheryl WuDunn, who was born in China. Although the material is very hard to read, I agree with you that it is something that we cannot turn away from. I was struck by the similarities in the brutality and dehumanization of the African slave trade in the past and the trafficking of these poor women and children in our day. From what I have read, it was very difficult to get people to face the abuses of that time, just as it is today with this modern day slavery of females. It is so horrific, its tempting to live in denial of the reality. This is why I am reading the book and encouraging others to read it, as well. I believe we serve a God Who calls us to care as He cares for these women and children. He does not turn away and neither can we.

  3. What surprised me the most about the stories in the intro and first chapter is the women involved in ruling over the female victims. It is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that a fellow woman, like the matriarch in Meena's brothel, would take any part in the inhumane treatment of another female. One would think that any woman would cringe at the horrors these young girls experience rather than participate in an overseers role.

    The most positive thing I took away from chapter one was Meena's stubborn spirit in the face of Satan's minions. I cannot say that I would possess the same if I were in her shoes. The physical torture she endured may have been enough for me to give up hope.

    I do find the material very disturbing and would prefer not to read it; however, as this is a reality, I believe it is more important to face these hard truths rather than look away in an attempt to avoid emotional pain. While there are many things in life I prefer not to acknowledge, some of these things are necessary in order to implement change. The emotional responses I had included horror, sorrow, anger, and a general breaking of my heart.

    I do consider the comparison of African slaves and sex slaves as an accurate one. In my opinion, any group of people that is subjected to slavery and the cruelties often inflicted on the "owned" individuals that particular group is the same. As a Christian, I do not find the idea of pinning this issue as a political one valid. God instructs His followers to love one another. By studying the definition of love found in 1 Cor. 13 coupled with the "Golden Rule" in Matthew 7:12, I find it incomprehensible for a Christian to consider any issue affecting humanity as political. I do think God will guide each individual to service in different areas. So, the "battling" done by one Christian may be prayer while God calls another Christian to the physical front lines of a specific war. Still, another may be called to provide financially to support those on the front lines while others offer clerical support for the "troops."

    With such a large number of modern slaves, I do wonder why so little is heard about it from the press. However, it seems as though many countries where sex slavery is prevalent adopt the notion that there is nothing wrong with owning people, similar to those that owned African slaves. Look at the lack of assistance provided by the authorities in some of these countries; it is appalling to discover that victimized women and children cannot receive aid from those who are supposed to protect societies from such harsh realities. Awareness surrounding this particular issue, which has increased in the past few years, allows an opportunity for many to step up to the proverbial plate and become involved in liberating the enslaved. The awareness results in a deep desire, on the parts of some, to help. Some things that need to be developed are avenues that enable people to help; so many who are just becoming aware of this problem want to help but have no idea how to go about it.

  4. Shannon -

    Yes, I agree that it is doubly shocking to discover that the overseers of these brothels are sometimes women who went through the same cruelty and "rose up to the rank of managers". Reading further in the book, it seems that these women have become so broken and jaded by their own experience that they have lost the ability to care in the way that we would think they would. But, then again, evil dwells in all our hearts to one degree or another, and without any restraint, comes to its full fruition - in this case the unthinkable torture, abuse and imprisonment of young girls and women, sometimes their very own flesh and blood.

    Even here in America, we hear of horrific acts of abuse against children at the hands of their own mothers. But most of us are moved and horrified by these acts of cruelty. In the countries where sex trafficking is condoned and made a part of the fabric of the culture, there seems to be little or no outcry against this abuse. Why?

    When it comes to Christianity, I will say that I have often heard that Jesus Christ broke the cultural taboos that reduced women to second class citizens and elevated them to a place of equality in the kingdom. He ministered to the woman caught in adultery, calling the men surrounding her to an awareness of their own sin. He restored women to the place of dignity they were created to have.

    In American, which has been so impacted by the Gospel, we expect women to be treated according to that standard. Countries that do not have that core moral underpinning reflect the demeaning and devaluing of women that comes from a world view that is devoid of the Gospel. Islam teaches that it is a man's right to dispose of his wife however he chooses, including, in Sharia law, the beheading of a wife he no longer wants. Hindu teaches that it is OK to put young girls in temples to be "given to the gods" and that people derive their value from the caste they are born into. These are world views that are alien to us as Americans and Christians. But, I believe it is these very teachings that have laid the foundation for the acceptance of the degradation and brutalization of females, as described in this book.

    In America, we do not even give it a second thought that we, as women, should be respected and protected by laws that will punish an abuser, if and when he is caught. I believe it is the Gospel that spells the difference for us as women and the absence of it in a culture and its laws, will bode ill for the girls and women who must live in that environment. In this case, it is a tragic difference indeed.

  5. You make a great point about the difference of women in America as opposed to many foreign countries. Our society promotes equality which makes it difficult to imagine living amidst a culture where women are treated as property.

    As far as the women who oversee the brothels, it is rather easy for me to be appalled at the lack of honor in their treatment of enslaved women since I am in my "right mind." However, I can imagine that they are so desensitized as a result of their own brutal experiences as former sex slaves that they have nothing noble to offer in the way of their actions. After all, God says that we love only because He first loved us. If one has never known anything pure, the hope of every believing in the possibility of goodness is probably dismal, though not impossible. For those that are so immersed in the perversion of sex commodities, whether master or slave, it must be so foreign to believe anything other than the lies rooted in their minds. While we all are born with a God given conscience, many people's are so polluted as a result of the atrocities they endure.

    You ask why there seems to be little or no outcry against the sexual abuse of young women in these other cultures? Good question. Perhaps, like those who owned African slaves in North America in the not so distant past, they see nothing wrong with it. I think it is in chapter two or three of this book where the author (Nicholas) confronts a border patrol guard (?) with the audacity of his belief that it is okay to kidnap girls from foreign countries for the pleasure of the men in his own country. The guard's justification is shocking and probably part of a majority's convictions. Other reasons probably include greed (for the authorities getting "paid off"), lust, and fear to confront the "bullies." Reminds me of the Underground Railroad. I always said that if I were alive in the 19th century, I would have been a part of helping slaves to freedom. However, when actually faced with the fear of retribution if my assistance were to be discovered, it is something that requires much courage.

  6. Yes, great, great courage to resist even with the threat of painful retribution, humiliation and possibly even death. Not an easy calling. We can't know what we would have done a couple of hundred years ago, but we can know what we will do today. Hopefully, as we go further into the subject and cover it with prayer for wisdom, the Lord will show us some possibilities for becoming involved in fighting this evil.

    I read the section about the border guard's justification of the slave trade in his country. He explained to the shocked American that "it is a necessary evil, that goes with our society. These (lower caste) girls must be sacrificed for the good of society. This way, young men have their needs met and the middle caste girls ("good girls") are safe." This is the very real thinking in a culture that has not been taught the Gospel message that all life is sacred, that women are to be valued as such, and that sexual exploitation and experimentation outside of marriage are forbidden by God.

    Interestingly enough, I heard a program today discussing the problem of the sexual exploitation of our own young women in America, which is on the increase. She discussed a shocking case in which a college student on one of our own campuses was gang raped and then sued the college for not protecting her by creating an atmosphere of 'anything goes' without any moral restraints whatsoever. The college administration's defense was that "rape is just a fact of life on campus, nowadays." What?! It's apparently a risk a young girl must be willing to take if she decides to go to school there... Sounds to me like, as the moral underpinnings of our society are ripped away from the fabric of America, we will move closer and closer to the type of thinking we see in the third world where rape and brutalization of women is justified on the basis that "it's just part of life. There's nothing we can do about it..." Code for nothing we WANT to do about it. For the sake of the young girls growing up in our midst, we have to ask ourselves, what will we do to protect our daughters, our nieces, and our granddaughters, from this evil being visited upon them?


How are you doing on your journey with the Lord? Started yet? Still searching. My prayer is that you will be encouraged to seek after Him with all your heart. Without a doubt, you will find Him. He is searching for YOU!