Turning Despair into Hope

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: You write about Nicholas being at the India-Nepal border, where guards were assigned to stop the smuggling of goods such as pirated DVDs, yet no one stopped the stream of Nepali girls being trafficked into India. That story captured what underlies all of the issues you write about—that women are considered less important in many parts of the world.

Nicholas Kristof: Many of these issues could be resolved if women were simply considered important. The issue isn’t that we don’t know how to address the problems; it’s that they don’t have any priority. 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 would be outrage and sentiment for doing something about it. Almost all the things we talk about happen to poor, rural, uneducated women. They’re the most voiceless people in any of these societies, and that’s why these things keep happening.

You tell many stories of women who have stood up to oppression and abuse, not just for themselves but for other women and girls.

Kristof: One of the people we talk about is Mukhtar Mai, who not only spoke up about her rape, but started schools with the compensation money. She’s our hero, a tremendously beneficial example for 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 Mukhtar has created some risk, and the result is that rapes have dropped in that area. I find people like her utterly awesome. We could be far more effective if we were to support more of these astonishing women who are trying to organize on the ground in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and make them the leaders.

Sheryl WuDunn: The key here is that certainly women often are the victims, but, in many ways, the people who can fix the problems are the very women who have gone through these challenges. They’re the ones who can solve the problems with support from the West.

You talk about journalists’ complicity in not getting these women’s voices heard. What needs to happen for the media to better tell these stories?

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

You cite studies 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 it has to do with the Quran. I don’t buy that, but one factor may be that some Muslim countries have been bad at family planning, and as a result have a very youthful population. In addition, they tend to marginalize women and so the youthful male cohort occupies an even larger share of the population than one might think.

The one thing that has 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 social chaos. If we’re trying to figure out what to do with Afghanistan and Pakistan, part of the answer is indeed military, but part of the answer may also be to try to reduce the marginalization of women and girls, and over a longer term bring more family planning into the scene. Over time, those things can help fight extremism.

Another aspect you cover is that cultures in which female chastity is considered sacred tend to be where females suffer the worst abuse.

Kristof: Those cultures where female chastity is sacred are the same ones where 13-year-old girls are kidnapped and locked up in brothels. Likewise, when a family’s honor depends upon the virginity of their daughter, the best way to hit that family is to rape their daughter. The emphasis on honor and chastity tends to produce these vicious and dishonorable results.

Your family supports several women in different countries, and you started a school in Cambodia. How do you decide who and what to support, when the needs are so great?

WuDunn: For us, Cambodia had a special resonance because we lived in and traveled throughout Asia and saw the sex trafficking—that 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 the organization that helped set up the school, and they’ve helped turn the country around in terms of educating girls.

At the end of Half the Sky, you list four initiatives that will help women and girls—one of them is iodizing salt.

Kristof: There are so many girls around the world who, because they’re not getting enough iodine in utero, are 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 easy to iodize salt, and yet—because, again, the victims tend to be poor and rural—the iodization doesn’t happen.

It’s also non-glamorous. We in the media do a 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.

How do you see churches and faith-based communities making a bigger dent?

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 accomplish much, much less than they could if they joined forces. It would be enormously helpful if each side would lay down its weapons and try harder to figure out areas of cooperation.

Secular liberals need to acknowledge how much good evangelicals have done in places like Africa. At cocktail parties in the Upper West Side, it’s fashionable to rail about evangelical missionaries in Africa, but those folks are in the middle of nowhere where often other aid groups don’t operate, and so many evangelicals give significant sums that secular liberals tend not to match. We can learn a lot from each other.

You cite the work of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade as a model for this international movement you’re sparking. What elements are applicable?

Kristof: The remarkable thing about the Wilberforce movement was that it galvanized the entire British population against an evil they couldn’t really see—because there was essentially no slavery within Britain. They paid an economic and security price for doing the right thing. 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 too much. The British abolitionists were careful not to do that and, if anything, to understate the evils that were going on. That made it easier to win over a somewhat skeptical population.

WuDunn: They aimed to reveal the facts, to basically inform and raise awareness, which is what’s happening with this issue.

And also to tell stories, which is the approach you use in the book. Stories are often what compel people to take action.

Kristof: Once people visualize that women in some parts of Africa have a one 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 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 global women’s issues.

We’ve been careful to 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.

WuDunn: Hopefully a broad enough movement will finally be a trigger 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. The key is that everyone benefits.

Kristof: I think there’s a deep hunger to make a difference, but also a deep frustration about how difficult it is. One of the book’s aims 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 often has a fairly mixed record for the intended beneficiary, it has an almost perfect record of benefiting the giver.

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

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