Extended Interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Promoting gender equality is crucial to combating global poverty, a point Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn make in their new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Millions of women and girls in developing countries die, are killed, or suffer brutality—because they are female. The authors, who share a marriage and a Pulitzer for their reporting for The New York Times, relate stories of horrific abuse—sex trafficking, honor killings, mass rape, maternal mortality—but also of terrific courage and resilience. Sojourners associate editor Molly Marsh spoke with them about their work.



Molly Marsh: I was struck by the story of Nick at the India/Nepal border, where guards were assigned to stop the smuggling of goods such as pirated DVDs, yet no one is stopping the stream of Nepali girls being trafficked into India. The guard you spoke to essentially said, “Well, this is the way it is. Plus, young men need a sexual outlet until they get married.” That story captured what I think underlies all of the issues you talk about—that females are somehow less important, less human.


Nicholas Kristof: That’s right. So many of these issues could be resolved if [females] were simply considered important. The issue isn’t that we don’t know how to address the problem; it’s that [women and girls] don’t have any priority at all. What was striking about that incident was also that the official at the border thought it was perfectly fine that illiterate, poor village girls end up paying the price by being kidnapped and locked up in brothels. If this were happening to middle-class Indian girls, there really would be outrage and there would be sentiment for doing something about it. But as long as the victims of—almost all the things we talk about are mostly poor, mostly rural, mostly uneducated—then they’re just the most voiceless people in any of these societies, and that’s why all these things keep happening.

Marsh: You write about journalists’ complicity in not getting these women’s voices heard. What needs to happen for the media to better use its platform?

Sheryl WuDunn: Right now there’s a lot of momentum to build a foundation for that kind of thing to happen. In the political sphere, you’ve got Obama appointing the council for women and girls, you’ve got Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state, you also have Melanne Verveer, the new ambassador for global women’s issues, and in the corporate sphere you’ve got a lot of corporations now focusing on women and girls—look at Wal-Mart, as well as Goldman-Sachs and ExxonMobil. We also think there’s a huge amount of interest at the grassroots level in women’s issues in the public at large. But again, it still needs this big trigger for something, and we think media have a role in helping pull that trigger.

Kristof: In general, we in the media tend to cover things that we cover; there’s momentum on issues that are already on the agenda. And once something is on the agenda, we just cover it by force of habit, but it’s difficult to propel something onto the agenda in the first place. As Sheryl said, you do get the feeling that a number of factors are now pushing some of these issues on the agenda, and once that happens then we’ll all be covering them by force of habit. Then they’ll seem like natural front-page stories in a way that they never have in the past.

Marsh: You also stress throughout the book that women, when they can, need to see themselves as their own agents and stand up to oppression. You’re careful to point out when they can do this; sometimes it’s lethal, obviously. Your book includes a lot of examples of women who have done this, not just for themselves but for other women and girls who have suffered some of the same abuses.

Kristof: There’s this great debate about aid effectiveness right now. One of the insights of the critics of aid is that it truly is harder than it looks, and there are failures. One of the things that impressed us is that the kinds of aid projects that are more likely to fail are those that are designed by a bunch of Westerners in New York or Washington. Those that are more likely to succeed are those where Westerners play a supportive role to local people on the ground from that culture. We’re the sherpas and they’re the leaders. We could [be] far more effective if we supported more of these just astonishing women who are trying to organize on the ground in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and really make them the leaders.

WuDunn: The key here is that certainly women often are the victims, but in many ways, the people who can fix the problem are the very women who have gone through these challenges. … It’s these women who emerge as leaders—they would be leaders in any other place.

Marsh: You also cite evidence that countries that repress women are hurting themselves economically, and that countries such as China, which has allowed more women into the workforce, have boosted their economies. You note that that’s called “the girl effect.” Could you talk more about this?

WuDunn: It really starts with a basic understanding that it’s okay to educate girls. In China—of course, China used to be extremely backward, so it’s not as though it’s starting from a better place; it used to bind women’s feet. They did abolish that, and then when communism came, they said women could drive trucks as well as men, so they really tried to make everyone equal. But that provided a foundation so that when the communists said everybody has to get educated, that included girls. So girls got an education on par with boys, and when it was time for them to look for jobs, society said it was okay for girls to go to work. That’s key, because society has to allow that.

Women were able to work in factories, and those were the sweatshops that jumpstarted China’s economy. They were making the shoes, clothes, and handbags that people started buying in very cheap places like Wal-Mart. The women were actually favored in the factories because they had small fingers and were very nimble. They learned great skills, and if you can take parts of that model into other areas of the developing world—obviously they would have to be tailored to the local conditions—that could be very powerful.

Marsh: In a lot of activist circles there is a wholly negative view of sweatshops, but the fuller picture is obviously more complex—when you don’t have a lot of options, this looks like a pretty good one.

Kristof: We tend to agree with the critique of sweatshops—the critics get the criticisms about right, but what they neglect are the alternatives to sweatshops aren’t usually education or a better job, but very often are worse jobs. In Asia in particular, sweatshops actually have been an escalator economically and socially, particularly for women, who tend to have fewer alternatives in a very poor economy and really have been associated with raising the status and economic opportunities of women—albeit the exploitation is very real.

Marsh: I was interested in some of the studies you cite about societies that have a large number of single young men and how that corresponds with a higher level of violence against women and girls.

Kristof: There’s been this debate about why Muslim countries have been disproportionately violent, and some people think that that has to do with the Quran. I don’t buy that at all, but I do think one factor may be that some Muslim countries have been really bad at family planning, and as a result they have a very youthful population. In addition, they tend often to marginalize women and so the youthful male cohort in effect occupies an even larger share of the population than one might think.

The one thing that has really stood out across a broad range of cultures, including America, is that a bulge of young men in a population tends to be associated with crime and a certain amount of social chaos. If we’re trying to figure out what to do with Afghanistan, Pakistan, then part of the answers are indeed military, but part of the answers may also be to try to reduce the marginalization of women and girls—and indeed over a longer term also try to bring more family planning into the scene, make options available for women to try to reduce this youth bulge in the population. Over time, those things really can help fight extremism.

Marsh: Another aspect you touch on is cultures in which female sexuality is considered sacred tend to be where females often suffer the worst abuse. I’m thinking particularly about “honor killings” and “honor rapes.” The very fact that female sexuality is considered so sacred makes it much more lethal, it seems, for women.

Kristof: It does seem deeply paradoxical that those cultures where female chastity is sacred are the same ones where 13-year-old girls are kidnapped and locked up in brothels because there aren’t other outlets. In countries like Iran, India, Pakistan, you tend to have huge brothel industries. Likewise, when a family’s honor depends upon the virginity of their daughter, then the best way to hit that family is to rape their daughter. The emphasis on honor and chastity tends to produce these incredibly vicious and dishonorable results.

Marsh: Is it hard to get people to talk to you about those kinds of personal experiences?

Kristof: As an American coming in, a lot of the traditional taboos about what can be asked and can’t don’t really apply to me. I’m kind of like a Martian, and so people will tell me things that they will never tell their fathers or, in some cases, their husbands. I must say also that I’m just stunned by the courage of some of these women who are willing to talk about these experiences, and I come out of these interviews not so much depressed about the human condition because of the things they’ve described, but deeply inspired by the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

One of the people we talk about in the book is Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan, who not only spoke up about her rape but then started schools with the compensation money. She is our hero, someone who has been a tremendously beneficial example for Pakistan, and has really turned the tide in Pakistan. Until she came along, the way women and girls reacted to being raped tended to be that they would kill themselves. As a result, there was no particular disincentive to rape a woman or girl, because if you were rich and raped a poor girl, you weren’t going to be prosecuted. Now she has created some risk, and the result is that rapes have dropped in that area. I find people like her utterly awesome.

Marsh: Your family supports several women in different countries; I’ve read that you started a school in Cambodia. Since you see such great need all over, how does your family decide who and what to support?

WuDunn: That’s a really important question to think about. For us, Cambodia had a special resonance, partly because we lived and traveled throughout Asia, and the sex trafficking there was one of the first horrifying things we saw happening to women and girls, so it’s been with us for a long time. We also know very well the organization that helped set up the school, and they’ve done tremendous work in Cambodia, which is one of the saddest places around. This organization has helped turn the country around in terms of educating girls who were left out of the society.

But as you try and figure out what you want to do, it should be something that you feel an emotional connection to. It could be something that you’ve had a brush with experience from somewhere in your past, or even a friend who is familiar with one of the issues. But it’s important to throw a dart on the wall if you can’t think of anything in particular and then just go from there, because it’s just taking that first step.

Kristof: One of the reasons we wrote the book was precisely to try to give people ideas about things they could do to try to help. That’s why in the aftermath of each chapter, we have mini-chapters that give an example of somebody really doing something. There does seem to us to be this hunger for people to really do something, to give back, and they’re often suspicious about whether their donations are going to make a difference, whether they’re going to be swallowed up by some kind of aid bureaucracy. But when people get good ideas and feel it’s going to make a difference, they really do want to dive in and make a difference.

Marsh: At the end of the book, you have four initiatives people can work on—iodizing salt, for example, seems like something very doable.

Kristof: Right. Iodizing salt is a great example, because it’s something that just isn’t on the radar screen. We don’t think of it in general, and we certainly don’t think of it as a women’s issue, but there are so many girls around the world who, because they’re not getting enough iodine in utero, they’re going to have 10 or 15 points shaved off their IQs for the rest of their lives. Their brains don’t develop properly in the first trimester. It is so easy to iodize salt and to get the benefits of that and yet—because again, the victims tend to be poor and rural—iodization doesn’t happen. It’s also probably a factor that it’s incredibly non-glamorous. We in the media do a much better job of covering a famine, where you can go out and a starlet can embrace some starving child. We’re not very good at covering these kinds of systematic failures, such as countries where poor, rural girls don’t get enough iodine so they’re never going to live up to their potential, and they’re going to drop out of school earlier, and the whole country and society pays a price as a result.

Marsh: One of the other initiatives you mention is a campaign against fistula.

WuDunn: Fistula is definitely a fixable problem. In the U.S., we used to have fistula problems. But in the developing world, they are still back in the old days with regard to not enough women being brought to hospitals to fix fistulas. As a result, these women are marginalized in society, put at the edge of the village in a hut because no one wants to be near them. But it’s very, very fixable.

Marsh: How do you see churches and faith-based communities making a bigger dent in these issues? You write that there needs to be much more unity forged among conservative and liberal groups, but what are ways the faith community can get closer together on, say, the movement to abolish sex trafficking?

Kristof: Sex trafficking is a good example. You have some conservative evangelicals on the Right who do wonderful work on this issue, and you have liberals on the Left who also do spectacular work, but because of this deep mistrust between the two, they don’t cooperate, and they accomplish much, much less than they could if they joined forces. They tend to focus on areas of disagreement, like “what do you do with adult prostitutes” and “do you call them prostitutes or do you call them sex workers”—this kind of thing. On issues like sex trafficking and maternal health, one would accomplish infinitely more if one were to focus more on common ground. Likewise, abortion has obviously been a huge divide between secular and at least the conservative faith community, and one approach that works for at least part of the faith community would be an emphasis on family planning to reduce pregnancies that end up being aborted. It would be enormously helpful if each side would lay down their weapons and really try harder to figure out areas of cooperation.

As somebody who lives in New York, I think a part of that is that secular liberals need to acknowledge much more how much good evangelicals have done in places like Africa. At cocktail parties in the Upper West Side, it’s very fashionable to rail about evangelical missionaries in Africa, but those folks are out in the middle of nowhere where often other aid groups don’t operate, and so many evangelicals give very significant sums—they may not quite tithe—but they certainly give significant sums in a way that secular liberals tend not to match. So I think we can all learn a lot from each other.

Marsh: You’re explicit about calling for an international movement, and you’re specifically recruiting people. One model you cite is Britain’s campaign to abolish the slave trade. Could you talk about elements of that model that are applicable to this international movement that you’re sparking?

Kristof: The remarkable thing about the Wilberforce movement was that it really galvanized the entire British population against an evil that they couldn’t really see— because there was essentially no slavery within Britain. And they paid a certain economic and security price for doing the right thing. One of the lessons of why it was able to happen was precisely that it was a very broad coalition—you had leftists who were sympathetic to the French revolution working with evangelicals like Wilberforce, forming common cause.

Another lesson is that they were careful not to exaggerate. One of the problems with humanitarians of every stripe is that we tend to exaggerate. The causes are so important, so just, that there’s a tendency to push it a little bit too much. The British abolitionists were careful not to do that and, if anything, to understate the evils that were going on. I think that made it easier to win over a somewhat skeptical population.

WuDunn: The other thing that is remarkable is that what they aimed to do was to reveal the facts, to basically inform and raise awareness, which is what I think is happening here with this issue—there’s no attempt to exaggerate; it’s more just to raise awareness about the facts.

Marsh: And also to tell stories, which is the approach you use in the book. There are a lot of policies and a lot of laws, but stories are what really compel people to take action.

Kristof: That’s right. Once people know that their sugar is brought about by flogging fellow human beings and manacling them in slave ships, or, alternatively, that women in some parts of Africa have a 1 in 10 chance of dying in childbirth, that tends to be the first step toward a solution. Once you appreciate how bad things are, it’s much more likely there’s going to be a solution. That was the case with Wilberforce, and we think that’s going to be the case for these global women’s issues—once they get on the agenda, a solution is very likely to follow.

Kristof: One of the things we’ve been careful to do is avoid making this just a women’s issue because the moment that happens, it’s marginalized. It’s got to be a broader human rights issue and empowerment issue. Hopefully together we can help build a more diverse community of people who care about it.

Marsh: What would you like to see happen—with your book and with these issues?

WuDunn: We really want to see people engaged in this issue—that it would create a broad enough movement to bring about significant change in the developing world. Right now it is happening one by one, but hopefully it will happen millions by millions, because it will lift economies, it will lift livelihoods, it will lift human spirits.

The key is that everyone benefits. It’s not just that “here is something to do good for.” There is a benefit for everybody if economies rise. Whether it’s the liberals or the evangelicals, each side will benefit if they can say that they’ve helped lift communities out of poverty.

Kristof: I think there’s a really deep hunger, by so many people, to make a difference, but also a deep frustration about how difficult it is. One of the aims of the book was to give people a better sense of how they can go about making a difference—not only on behalf of other people but also in their own lives. It was striking to us how many people started out thinking this was going to be an altruistic burden and then discovered that while giving has often a fairly mixed record for the intended beneficiary, it has an almost perfect record of benefiting the giver.

Also, I think that do-gooders of the world, which surely include a lot of your audience, have been pretty bad at marketing and have to figure out how to connect the causes that we care passionately about with the public. That’s an issue we struggled with in the book, and I hope that we offer some insights into.

Nicholas Kristof is also the subject of Reporter, a documentary directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar that will air on HBO in 2010.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Extended Interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines