Empowering women and girls is the most effective way to fight poverty and extremism, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Sheryl WuDunn and her husband, Nicholas Kristof. Their 2009 book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” sparked a movement for change.
WuDunn is the 2012 Women’s History Month Speaker sponsored by the Luann Dummer Center for Women at the University of St. Thomas. She spoke with the Minnesota Women’s Press in January, sharing her beliefs surrounding the empowerment of women.
How did you come by your passion for issues around women and girls?
Nick [Kristof] and I approached it very differently from other people in this field. We came at it as journalists. We were [in China] to cover the democracy movement [in 1989]. It was front page news on a daily basis. The following year we started roaming around the countryside of China and we discovered that not even one column inch had been devoted to [the plight of women and girls].
There were about 30 million missing female babies in China over the decades. That amounted to about 30,000 a year. It raised our eyebrows and we started looking into this.
We, of course, thought it was just peculiar to China. Then we moved to Japan and discovered that there was mistreatment of women in Asia as well. Nick went to Cambodia to learn about the sex trafficking. He saw some horrible things and again, we thought this was just Asia. He started traveling around Africa and saw mistreatment of women as well.
Over the years we saw that there was something more than just what was going on in each locale. It was something bigger going on. We started to realize, wow, this is really something. This is a huge challenge. That’s why we wrote “Half the Sky.”
You call gender equality the moral challenge of the century.
It sounds like a very large statement. But when you compare it to previous historical challenges [it gives you perspective]. When we wrote “Half the Sky” it was a huge movement to convince people that [gender inequality] was a terrible thing.
At the peak of the slave trade in the 1780s there were 80,000 Africans transported to the new world as per year. The State Department now thinks that in terms of persons trafficked across international borders, that number is 800,000 per year and that does not include people trafficked within borders. In terms of scale, this is huge.
These days women in the sex trade are purchasable for about $200-$300, which means that they are expendable. You can imagine the greater mistreatment they will receive because they are expendable is even more horrific.
You say that one of the best ways to fight terrorism is to educate women and girls.
The fact is that when women are marginalized they are not in the mainstream of society. That means the mainstream is basically men and when the preponderance of those men are young it takes on the environment of a male locker room. There are higher levels of violence in a predominantly male society. There is no stabilizing influence.
But if you educate women and bring them into the mainstream of society they can provide a much more stabilizing force. One of the measurements [the military] uses to determine how stable an area is, is the level of education of women and girls. So even the military acknowledges that is a very important factor.
Of course this is not the only factor that will turn around terrorism. But if you actually educate men and women you really can help stabilize. So that, for example in Afghanistan, if we had devoted a much larger proportion of funds to help build schools and education programs throughout the society for boys and girls I think we would have had a much different outcome.
What difference does it make if we channel more funding to support women and girls?
If women control the purse strings, they tend to devote more of that money to education and health care. When men control the purse strings 20 percent of the take home pay tends to go to alcohol, cigarettes, sugary drinks, festivals and prostitution. You don’t have that with women. When they are given some education-in some places just elementary school-it changes the dynamics of the household. Education has been shown to be the one ladder out of poverty and so if you can educate women and girls that can really lift a family out of poverty.
How or where do you draw the line between honoring cultural issues and human rights issues?
Let me tell you the story of China for instance. My grandmother’s feet were bound. It was just incredibly crippling to women-the bones in your feet just crack because they are turned in. You can’t even walk. Clearly it was a terrible, terrible practice.
The West said this was a horrific practice and the enlisted local intellectuals in China and said you have got to change this. They convinced the intellectuals that this was right so the locals, the Chinese, ended up leading the movement against foot binding. It actually was eradicated in one generation.
My answer is that when you find something that is so offensive, it doesn’t matter. Foot binding was a centuries old practice and yet, it got changed. I am Chinese American and I am so glad that is changed.
I think there are certain things that if they are so offensive-like genital cutting-it doesn’t matter whether it is a cultural practice. Chances are that if a Westerner thinks it is offensive, there are local people who also think it is offensive but they can’t speak out.
What about women in the United States?
Women in the U. S. need to address issues at home as well. It is hard to preach on one side when you yourself have not taken care of your own backyard. We just found the problems abroad to be of a dimension that is much more horrific, [a different] order of magnitude. But definitely, one has to address issues at home, too.
I found the book extremely depressing and extremely uplifting. How was your experience of living with it and talking to the women and girls?
What really struck us was that in the most terrible, bleakest of situations you find people who are just so heroic and so strong that they are inspiring. And it makes me think, would I able to do this in that situation? [How were we] just born with such lucky circumstances? It makes you realize that in our own circumstances, and with what we have, we should be doing a lot more.
A young woman mentioned in the book was sex trafficked in a terrible situation. She was mistreated, she was beaten up and was lucky enough to escape. She married a European and she could have gone [to Europe]. But she went back and opened a clinic to help other girls in these brothels. She is helping other girls fight against brothel owners. She is extremely strong to the point where she has made working against sex trafficking her life mission.
Where do you find hope?
In the social entrepreneurs and in the fact that there are so many knowledgeable people working in nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations in these fields. There is an enormous amount of progress being made. Developmental economics is a hot field right now. Global health is hot. That means great talent is putting its mind to solving these problems that for so many decades took a back burner. Now it is becoming much more mainstream. And that’s what it takes. It takes a movement to really turn these things around. And I think we are beginning to see elements of a movement.
Action = Change
For a list of groups that support women in developing countries: halftheskymovement.org/get-involved
WuDunn suggests these four easy steps you can take right now:
2. Sponsor a woman or girl through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision or American Jewish World Service.
4. Join the CARE Action Network, www.care.org
Source: Half the Sky