Author Nicholas Kristof seeks better world for women

Kristi Heim
The Seattle Times (MCT)

Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn set out to write a book. By the time they finished, 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.

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

Using the Web 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.

Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times columnist, argues that our own national security is tied to the well being of women in the developing world.

We spoke with Kristof earlier this week. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

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?

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 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: 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. (Secretary of State Henry) 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 birthrates 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.

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.


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