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October 9, 2009 at 7:00 AM

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Half the Sky: Q&A with Nicholas Kristof

Posted by Kristi Heim

Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn set out to write a book. By the time they were done they had managed to ignite a movement. In "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," they compare emancipating women to the abolition of slavery.

The statistics stop you cold: one million children forced into prostitution every year; three million women sold as sex slaves; more women likely to be maimed or killed by male violence than by cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.

Traveling around the world, the husband-and-wife team profile individual women who are among those forced into sex trafficking and prostitution or faced with appalling health conditions. Even more remarkable, though, is how the women overcome those circumstances and go on to change their lives and help others.

Using the Web and TV, including an appearance on Oprah, to spread their message, Kristof and WuDunn invite people to join the cause of fighting poverty and extremism by educating and empowering women and girls. One local non-profit is organizing book clubs around the country to encourage activism. Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times columnist, will visit Seattle next week, talking with educators and giving a speech Thursday at Town Hall, sponsored by the World Affairs Council. He will discuss how our own national security, as well as the prosperity and stability of the world, is tied to the well being of women.

In the week leading up to the talk, I will be featuring perspectives on the issue from local organizations and individuals working on behalf of women around the world. Do you know of one such remarkable person or group? Please share your thoughts and suggestions.


Nicholas Kristof met a group of young refugees who had fled from Darfur in a visit to a refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border earlier this year.

Q: What is "gendercide?"

A: Gendercide is a term to describe the way millions of women and girls die around the world because they don't get the same access to food and health care that males do. It's common when food is scarce to feed sons and starve daughters, or to take a sick son to the doctor while feeling a sick daughter's forehead and saying, "Oh, she'll be better tomorrow.'

Q: At what point did you decide to go from an observer to someone taking an active role in this issue?

A: I went into journalism in part because I wanted to have an impact, but it's a delicate balance - you can't march in as a crusader into a school board meeting you're covering. But we wrote Half the Sky not so much to inform people as because we wanted to shake people up and help address these issues.

Q: What is it that causes so many societies around the world to oppress women?

A: Traditionally, what mattered in many agricultural societies was physical strength, and men tended to have more of that. In addition, conservative sexual mores and taboos about menstruation sometimes led women to be further cloistered, which eroded the ability of women to contribute to the family - and thus devalued them further.

Q: Will eliminating oppression mean that humans have to overcome something in their nature?

A: Oppressive attitudes are often embedded in culture, but we can change them. After all, Sheryl's grandmother had bound feet, and Sheryl certainly doesn't.


Sheryl WuDunn won the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement with her husband, Nicholas Kristof, for chronicling human rights in developing countries. Her grandmother grew up in China with bound feet.

Q: How will empowering women solve other world problems?

A: Empowering women tends to lead to faster economic growth, which in turn tends to undermine extremism and reduce civil conflict. In addition, there's some evidence that countries that marginalize women tend to be more likely to have the macho values of a boy's locker room or an armed camp and are more prone to violence - bringing women into the picture tends to result in more security.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: One example is Pakistan and Bangladesh. They used to be all the same country until Bangladesh split off in 1971, and at that time Bangladesh seemed utterly hopeless. Kissinger described it as an international basket case. But the one thing Bangladesh did was invest in girls, especially girls' education, and today Bangladesh has more girls in high school than boys. All these educated girls then poured into the labor force and were the pillar of the new Bangladeshi garment industry, which buttressed the economy and undermined fundamentalists. All those educated women also reduced birth rates and supported civil society organizations that promote development, like Grameen and BRAC. There are other factors at play as well, but it's fair to say that partly because it educated girls, Bangladesh is more stable and less prone to terrorism and violence than Pakistan itself.

Q: You make the argument that Westerners don't invest enough in changing culture, and connect the boom in Muslim terrorists with the broader marginalization of women. If Muslim women are oppressed but don't feel they are, how can Westerners effectively change that?

A: Sheryl's grandmother probably didn't feel oppressed when her feet were bound, but with education people began to see things differently. It doesn't work for Americans to denounce other cultures as barbaric, but promoting education does have an effect, and so does supporting those within a society who are seeking change. For example, we would be more effective in the Muslim world if we did less speaking through the megaphone ourselves and did more to support women leading the way for change in those countries.

Q: You gave your own blood to try to save Prudence, a woman in Cameroon, only to watch her die when the doctor could not be found. How did that affect you?

A: It was so frustrating. I could have wrung that doctor's neck, although it wouldn't have done much for my humanitarian credentials. I knew intellectually that one woman dies a minute in childbirth, but to see it happen so unnecessarily in front of you - that shakes you, galvanizes you and is hard to walk away from. "Half the Sky" is partly a legacy of that experience and others like it.

Q: Half the Sky refers to a Chinese saying by Mao, whose Communist revolution helped emancipate Chinese women. Yet because of the preference for male babies, China today has a dangerous gender imbalance --119 male births for every 100 girls. This suggests that even revolutions sometimes fail to change entrenched cultural beliefs about the role of males and females...

A: Changing cultures doesn't happen overnight, and the son preference is deeply embedded within Chinese society. But there's no question that China has made vast progress in creating opportunities for Chinese women, and eventually I think that imbalance will right itself. South Korea used to have a similar imbalance, and now it is correcting itself as parents realize that daughters have certain advantages.

Q: Regarding health spending and women's well being in developing countries, is too much money going toward fighting specific diseases like AIDS and malaria and not enough into maternal health programs? Would we be better off eradicating fistula than malaria?

A: It's hugely important to fight malaria, and I don't think we should walk away from that. In the case of AIDS, there's a general recognition that it was a mistake to channel resources just to AIDS while leaving women to die in childbirth unless they also happened to have HIV. We need to do a better job of supporting health systems generally, and improving maternal health tends to do just that.

Q: How do you and Ms. WuDunn, practically the power couple of gender equity issues, divide your own work on the book?

A: With previous books, we wrote different chapters. This time, I wrote the subjects and Sheryl wrote the predicates. No, no, just kidding. We shared the writing and edited each other. Just as couples grow to look alike, so does their writing.

Q: All the publicity surrounding the book and movement has made you something of a celebrity (Indeed you've traveled with a celebrity, George Clooney, to Darfur refugee camps). Is this helpful to your cause?

A: I'm not remotely a celebrity, and I tend to stay away from conferences because I learn more in villages. I'm a deep believer in the need to get out and travel and talk to ordinary people and truly listen to ordinary people. But where there is interest from TV, I welcome it. I've traveled with Ann Curry of NBC to Darfur and Pakistan, and the upshot was that NBC Nightly News did a show on maternal health. A film crew did a documentary about me for HBO, to air next year, and there were times in the Congo with them that I could have wrung their necks, if it wouldn't have undermined my image as a humanitarian. But now I'm so glad they came and did the documentary, because it helps shine a light on atrocities in Congo. And shining a light is the first step to making a difference.

Author appearance:
"Saving the world's women: An evening with Nicholas Kristof," Thursday, Oct. 15, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth St., Seattle; Doors open at 6:30 p.m., program begins at 7 p.m.; cost: $40 members, $60 nonmembers, $40 students; preregister online at the World Affairs Council Website or call 206-441-5910.

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