By Claire Halbrook
“Women aren’t the problem, they’re the solution along with men.”
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, recently spoke at UC San Diego about his new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Through this new publication, he hopes to recruit new followers “to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”
Kristof’s interest in this field began when he met a bright young girl in Wuhan Province, China. Despite her outstanding academic performance she was forced to drop out of school because her parents could not afford the $13 fee. Shortly after publishing an article in the Times, Kristof received a flood of donations, mostly checks for $13, and suddenly a movement was born.
His newest book focuses on combating three major abuses against women: sex-trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality. He repeatedly emphasizes the important role education plays in combating at least some elements of these issues.
In the world’s less developed countries, there are actually more men than women due to a preference for boys when families’ resources are stretched. When it comes to health-care and education, boys receive much-needed attention before girls. This, in combination with sex-selective abortion has led to the disappearance of 100 million girls worldwide, a phenomenon known as “gendercide”.
The State Department now estimates that over 800,000 women are trafficked across international borders. Note that this does not include those who are trafficked within countries. In 1780, at the height of the slave trade, 80,000 people were sold or traded. While in Cambodia, Kristof met young girls kidnapped by family members in order to be sold for a few hundred dollars.
One woman dies every minute in childbirth. Kristof claims that this is merely the result of a lack of political will. He feels that for most politicians around the world, these women do not merit intervention. It was not long ago that this was an issue in the US, more women died in childbirth than men died in WWII. In the US it took women’s suffrage to turn everything around, as they gained stature in society, they became more important.
Kristof’s speech and writings are littered with heart-breaking and heart-warming stories of women he has met throughout his travels. One of the most poignant is about a woman who as a teenager was impregnated by her elderly husband and suffered from a fistula. Due to the smell from her injury, she was ostracized by her community and left to be eaten by hyenas. Instead of surrendering to such a dire fate, she crawled to a near-by village and was taken by a missionary to a hospital which specializes in fistula repair and rehabilitation. This woman, despite her illiteracy, eventually rose through the ranks and is now a surgeon at the very clinic where she was once a patient.
Kristof strives to point out that although these issues are not pleasant to engage in, the individual stories are ultimately uplifting. He reminded the audience that the empowerment of women is not a zero-sum game. Men as well as entire communities can benefit from women’s education as well as their political and financial empowerment. Kristof believes that change does not come from leaders and cannot be made possible unless there is pressure from the bottom. He encourages those moved by his speech and/or book to volunteer and donate. This is our generation’s opportunity to engage in a cause greater than ourselves and gain perspective on our own lives.
“You can help accelerate change if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”
PROSPECT: You mentioned that China has made incredible developments in a very short period of time. How is it that they’ve gone from foot binding to female politicians in less than one hundred years?
NK: Part of it was Chairman Mao, the one good thing that he really did was empower women and believe in educating girls and once they started, it created this cycle where they saw that to educate girls can produce real benefits and it created this nice cycle that kept on going.
PROSPECT: What is the most significant area of education that you believe needs improvement?
NK: You know it’s usually just a matter of basic literacy. But it is true, we often focus just on the number of people going to school. What does matter a lot is whether they are actually learning in school. In a lot of schools around the world, kids go but they don’t learn anything.
PROSPECT: How does the education of women fit into the broader agenda of international development?
NK: I think it’s related to so many other issues, from climate change to international security to global health questions. And it can’t be done by ignoring men–it doesn’t work and it creates backlash if men are completely ignored but I think there is a real appreciation for the results we get by focusing on women just for practical reasons.
PROSPECT: We know that micro-finance is not end all be all, so micro-finance along with what else is really going to pull women out of poverty and empower them politically and economically?
NK: Well, education certainly helps. You also need good governance in countries, you need Presidents who aren’t stealing from the coffers, we need reasonable laws, security, we need other things too. There are no silver bullets but micro-finance when conditions are right makes a real difference and certainly so does education.
PROSPECT: You were cited in the New York Times Magazine and in your speech about how Esther Duflo is saying that women spend more wisely than men. However, her new study, “The Miracle of Microfinance?” found that micro-finance doesn’t actually help women in terms of education, health, or making decisions within the household.
NK: Yeah, well she is actually uncomfortable and frustrated with the way her study has been portrayed. Her feeling is that what her study suggests is that micro-finance is not a silver bullet, but it does help to some degree, though it could be overstated and I think it’s probably about right. A lot depends on the model of micro-finance and I think some micro-finance models are much better than others. So I took her study as a warning against overselling micro-finance or anything else.
PROSPECT: Your movement is very “bottom up”.
NK: Yes, I tend to think the “top down” kind of problem-solving efforts sound great but don’t actually work very well. And it’s frustrating to do things one person at a time. But at least it actually does something, and for those people it makes an enormous difference.
PROSPECT: Is the aim that eventually this will put pressure on politicians and change policies?
NK: Yes, covering things in all directions. And I don’t think leadership is going to come from President Obama. I think the leadership is going to come from the people putting pressure on the President.
PROSPECT: What can UCSD students do to become part of you movement? Volunteer?
NK: Yes! This book tour is a recruiting effort! Students, who obviously have less money, are not going to be writing big checks. However, I think at this stage of a student’s life, it may be just a matter of going off one summer and volunteering. It could be thought of as part of one’s education that will lay the groundwork later when students graduate and become “fat cats” and are able to write checks at that point.