Half the Sky: Revisited

Two years ago, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn published the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Half the Sky. Derived from an old Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky," the title invites readers to be reminded that the world is run on the shoulders of women and men, equally.

The book traces the lives of women struggling on a global scale and also the unsung heroes who have dedicated their careers to helping these women. Be it economically oppressed, physically abused, or otherwise ignored, women throughout the world and throughout history have been left in the shadows of silence. Therefore, many of the stories reported in Half the Sky vividly describe the violence faced by women around the globe: brutal rapes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, girls as young as eight-years-old bought and sold within the sex trade in India, and women left in a state of total Pariah as a result of the cultural traditions created by misogyny.

Having first read the book shortly after it was released, the stories that have stuck with me most are those of the women left not as victims of violent crime, but victims of neglect. Specifically, I am talking about the women who bravely face childbirth without the protections afforded them by proper pre-natal and maternal care. For me, this was the first time I had read in such detail about the extreme suffering many women are subjected to for lack of proper care.

I frequently revisit the story of Mahabouba Muhammad, a young girl who was raped and left pregnant by a sixty-year-old married man. Embarrassed and afraid, Mahabouba ran away and had the child without the assistance of a midwife. Due to her young age, and consequently her immature reproductive system, Mahabouba ended up with an obstructed labor. Without medical attention, Mahabouba lay for days in agony as her child slowly rotted. This left her with a fistula, which happens when the wall between a woman’s vagina and the bladder or rectum tears.

Sadly, Mahabouba’s story is not unique. Thousands of women, mostly in under-developed countries, suffer fistulas -- and death -- each year as a result of inadequate access to prenatal and maternal care. In fact, each day more than 1,000 women die in pregnancy and childbirth. Of those 350,000 plus deaths annually, over 90 percent are preventable.

And, what is being done?

Many organizations that work tirelessly for improvements in women's health, such as Marie Stopes International, Pathfinder International, and Worldwide Fistula Fund, gained considerable recognition after the release of Half the Sky and continue to do advocacy to raise awareness for women's health issues, and of course, treating the afflicted women.

Recently, some of the most promising developments have been in regard to how mobile technology is being used to improve maternal health. Liberia announced a new program designed to help lower the country's maternal death rate. One component of the program involves the training of midwives to use mobile technology to text data about maternal health to a central site. Cataloging such data will help in developing future programs to assist women. Additionally, Oxfam just announced a new partnership with Nokia, made possible through OpenIDEO, in which they have challenged each and every one of us to propose new ways mobile technologies can be used to improve maternal health.

While Half the Sky succeeded in bringing some much needed attention to the topic of women's health and importance, there is still incredible work to be done on a global level to improve the maternal care in developing nations.

Learn more about OpenIDEO's dedication to maternal health and mobile technology as well as how the new partnership program also calls for active participants.