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Half the Sky: Sexual Honor, Violence and Maternal Health

Kristof and WuDunn traverse some very thorny ground in their fifth chapter of Half The Sky–The Cult of Virginity, Idealized Chastity, Hymen Worship and Honor Killings. Texts from societies around the world idealize female chastity, but the most chilling and maddening may be the biblical command to stone to death a girl who does not bleed on her wedding sheets. It is with this text, Deuteronomy 22:13-21, that the authors begin their examination of sexual honor and violence.

“The hymen–fragile, rarely seen, and pretty pointless–remains an object of worship…It is frequently worth more than human life” (81).

Shockingly high rates of women and girls are killed each year for falling in love or being accused of immodesty, and often there is no proof that they have had sex. “The paradox of honor killings,” the authors note with poignancy, “is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder” (82).

Chapter five includes the story of a Kurdish Iraqi girl, Du’a Aswad, who fell in love with a Sunni boy. After staying out with him one night, she returned in the morning to find her furious family ready to do her harm. She ran seeking safety from a tribal elder, but religious leaders and family members demanded her death. They forced their way into the elder’s home, dragged Du’a out, and then over an excruciatingly drawn-out attack, killed her with stones and cinder blocks. The male crowd swelled to over 1,000, and people recorded the killing on mobile phones. Sickening and horrific footage is widespread on the Internet.

But if idealized female chastity can be made a source of honor, then the reverse can also be true. Rape has become a chief tool of war in conservative countries because female sexuality is so sacred. In Sudan, Sierra Leone, and especially in Congo, mass rape (sometimes including with sticks and knives) is used as a sign of strength and of opponents’ weakness. A former UN commander commented that in Congo, it is more dangerous to be a woman than a fighter in combat zones.

Dina, a seventeen year-old Congolese girl was accosted by four men who raped her, gouged her with a stick, and then left her for dead. Her family members came looking for her after she didn’t return home. They found her dying in tall grass. Unable to afford hospital care, Dina lay paralyzed at home with a fistula (a hole in tissue) from the stick. Her bladder and rectum were torn, and urine and feces trickled out and down her legs. Rectovaginal and vesovaginal fistulas are common in Congo.

HEAL Africa, a Congolese-led hospital and community health organization, took Dina. Doctors repaired her damaged body and provided physical therapy. The authors call HEAL a “sanctuary of dignity,” and appeal to readers who want to become involved in humanitarian work to consider volunteering for organizations like HEAL. To understand the issues that face women around the world, Kristof and WuDunn say, “You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst.” If that is not possible, people might raise awareness and funds at home. But college students ought to spend a year (at least) in the developing world, the authors say. Harper McConnell is a young woman who did just that. She partnered with HEAL in Congo, and started an education program for children awaiting treatment, and skills-training classes for women in line for surgeries.

In Chapter six, Kristof and WuDunn  address maternal mortality through the story of Ethiopian Mahabouba Muhammad. Mahabouba was sold for ten dollars to a sixty year-old man to be a second wife. She was about thirteen. He abused her and impregnated her. She managed to run away late in the pregnancy. When she gave birth, her hips had not grown wide enough to accommodate a baby, and the partly birthed child became wedged.

In obstructed labor, Mahabouba lost the child and the tissue surrounding the dead baby necrotized and caused a fistula. She sought help, but was considered cursed and was left to be eaten by hyenas. Half paralyzed, Mahabouba dragged herself to the abode of a Western missionary, who saved her life and took her to a hospital in Addis Ababa specializing in fistula care.

Fistulas from obstructed labor are virtually non-existent in the Western world (though at one point they were common enough that there was a fistula hospital in Manhattan), but in Africa and the developing world, they are commonplace. Likewise, maternal mortality rates remain at frightening levels.

Dr. Allan Rosenfield is a public health physician in Nigeria working to curb unwanted pregnancies and lower maternal mortality through out-of-the-box thinking. By subsidising school uniforms, he found girls stayed in school longer, which meant delaying marriage and pregnancy until physical maturation allowed girls to properly deliver babies. A study showed that giving girls a $6 uniform every 18 months increased likelihood that they would remain in school, and by extension, pregnancy and maternal mortality rates would decrease.

Rosenfield took his unusual approach to maternal health to Thailand, where he advocated increased use of contraceptives in partnership with the Thai ministry of health. He proposed allowing nurse midwives to prescribe contraceptives, which proved successful in reducing unwanted pregnancies. He went global with his advocacy and aid work, treating maternal mortality as a human rights issue. He founded an organization called Averting Maternal Death and Disability, which aimed at making childbirth safe.

His, and other programs like it, continue to save lives of mothers and their babies because of decisions to make maternal health a global priority.


1. Sometimes our sacred texts move us closer to the eschatological community Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven. Other times, our sacred texts are dangerously obstructive.

2. Honor killings and honor (dishonor) rapes are an immense problem. So too is Western Christianity’s obsession with chastity and sexual “purity.”

3. Kristof and WuDunn are right that intractable global gender justice issues are best understood not from afar (as in reading about them in this book), but up close. Those able should expose themselves to life abroad. That said, short term “mission” trips are limited in value because they deal with issues superficially. Only long-term aid work can adequately address root causes.

4. People of faith often seem more concerned about the F-word that is an impolite expression meaning “have sex” than about the F-word that is a devastating result of sexual violence and/or unplanned pregnancy that includes leaking feces and urine, infection, humiliation and often death. We may need to reconsider which battle is worth fighting.

5. Adventist Christianity currently has built in a potentially astounding capability for addressing some of the issues Kristof and WuDunn discuss with our End It Now campaign and the international work ADRA  does. Should we make these causes/organizations bigger priorities? If so, how might we do so?


This was originally posted on the Women’s Resource Center website as part of the book club discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Join the discussion at the Women’s Resource Center blog.

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