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Originally published Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:03 AM

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Book review

'Half the Sky': a wholehearted story of courage among women

"Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," a new book by co-authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, tells stories of women worldwide who surmount unbelieveable odds to to win their health, freedom and dignity.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide'

by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95

You'd expect a world tour of sex slavery, wife beating and death-by-childbirth to be a nonstop downer.

Instead, "Half the Sky" introduces us to some of the most courageous and inspiring girls and women on the planet.

Fans of co-author Nicholas Kristof's New York Times' op-ed columns will recognize Mukhtar Mai, an impoverished Pakistani girl raped by a rival clan. She confronted culture and courts, won compensation and built schools, a women's shelter and a free legal clinic.

You'll also meet extraordinary "everyday" heroes: Cambodian girls who dared escape sex slavery; a battered village wife empowered through microfinance; an Ethiopian teen who suffered bowel and bladder injuries during childbirth and learned how to surgically repair the fistulas, or ruptures, to help others.

There's even a chapter on Overlake School in Redmond, where students raised $15,500 (talent shows, gourmet dog biscuits) to build a school in Pailin, Cambodia, a town rife with brothels. "Overlake Pailin" now has books, computers, an English teacher — and 270 barefoot students with Yahoo accounts. Educating poor girls helps protect them from sex work; Redmond students learned life lessons. Principal Frank Grijalva called it the most meaningful project of his career.

It's no accident that husband-and-wife journalists Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn focus on compelling characters. Kristof's blog frequently cites University of Oregon professor Paul Slovic's research on psychic numbing: Most of us are willing to rescue a flailing individual, but faced with mass atrocities — statistics — we turn away.

Still, the journalists deftly weave relevant stats and political context throughout.

Consider: One million children are forced into prostitution every year; an estimated 3 million women are sex slaves. Every day, the number of women who die from childbirth could fill five jumbo jets. Every 10 seconds, a girl's genitals are sliced, usually by a woman with no medical training nor anesthetic. Women ages 15 through 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by male violence than by cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.

Is there hope? Women need protective laws, of course, and the right to hold property and bank accounts, but the authors write, "Westerners invest too much effort in changing unjust laws and not enough in changing culture, by building schools or assisting grassroots movements."

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Education, microfinance and vaccination are key. Other surprising solutions: a warning video about "sugar daddies" shown to girls in western Kenya worked best at preventing unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. Deworming pills, iodized salt, uniforms and sanitary pads boost school attendance. Sweatshops, though harsh, provide alternatives to brothels and home abuse.

The book is written mostly in the affable voice of Kristof, who grew up on an Oregon farm before continuing to Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship and two Pulitzer Prizes — one for his Darfur columns and the other for covering China's pro-democracy uprising with WuDunn, a New York Times foreign correspondent turned investment adviser.

Intellectual credentials and a down-to-earth tone let them cross politically incorrect boundaries. They tell us the world's poorest families spend 10 times more on alcohol, prostitutes, candy, sugary drinks and feasts than on educating their children. Certain United Nations agencies (lauded for other reasons) spend more on photocopying than on anti-poverty programs. A chapter title: Is Islam Mysogynistic?

Educated, emancipated factory girls fueled China's economic rebirth, they posit, but the strongest reason to support oppressed women and girls is moral. Kristof and WuDunn hope "Half the Sky" will ignite a grass-roots revolution like the one that eliminated slavery. They offer dozens of concrete suggestions about what you can do to tackle the "paramount moral challenge" of the century.

Former Seattle Times reporter Paula Bock is working on a book about a refugee clinic on the Burma border: pbock@iletter.net

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