Nicholas Kristof on the Status of Women Around the World

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 / May/June 2011
June 2nd, 2011

 “How many of you think there are more men than women in the world?” New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof asked at his Ogden Lecture Commencement weekend. Among the overflow crowd in De Ciccio Auditorium, just a few hands went up.

Sadly, it was a trick question.

In developed countries women do outnumber men, as baby girls outnumber boys. But globally it’s a different story, Kristof said, flashing on the screen above him an image of a young girl with sharp, protruding ribs. In regions where food is scarce, he said, boys are fed first, and parents are quicker to take their sons than daughters to the doctor. “More girls are discriminated against to death than all the genocides of the twentieth century,” he said.

“The central moral challenge in the nineteenth century was slavery,” Kristof said. In the twentieth century it was totalitarianism. Now, he said, “it is the oppression of women and girls around the world.”

Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, who won a joint Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre, have taken on that cause, not only as reporters but humanitarians. They are the authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, and started a nonprofit by the same name, which comes from a Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky.

A veteran international correspondent, Kristof won a second Pulitzer for his reporting on the genocide in Darfur and has seen plenty of atrocities. That perspective made the horrors he depicted in his talk seem disturbingly familiar. Talking about human trafficking, for instance, he showed a slide of two girls he met in a raid on a brothel in India. One was five and the other ten. Another photo showed a girl whose pimp had gouged her eye out for her lack of enthusiasm toward her work. Modern slavery, Kristof said, is often seen as hyperbole, however in 2004 he bought two girls from their brothel owners. One cost him $250; the other, $200. “I got receipts,” he said.

In Niger, he said, a woman has a 50 percent chance of dying in childbirth. He told the story of a thirteen-year-old who was married off to an older man and suffered a fistula in childbirth, which left her incontinent. Seen as marked by evil, she was left for hyenas to kill, but managed to crawl thirty miles to safety, climbing into trees at night. That girl is now a nurse, Kristof said, at the hospital where she received the $350 operation that saved her.

And that was Kristof’s second point: along with all these injustices come opportunities. What triggered his slide from journalistic objectivity into humanitarian involvement was a 2004 encounter with a girl in rural Hubei, China. The brightest kid in her school, she was dropping out because her family could not afford the $13 fee. Kristof told this story in the Times, and received a flood of mail—“mainly checks for $13,” he said. But he also received a wire transfer for $10,000, which turned out to be a bank error. The bank made good on it, though, and Kristof set up a fund for the village, so that no girl would have to leave school for lack of money.

The story had two happy endings. The girl became an accountant, moved to wealthy Guandong Province, and sent home money. Other girls finished school and, rather than working in the fields, went on to get lucrative jobs. “The whole community was transformed,” Kristof said. All through a bank error.

“We have all won the lottery that is life,” Kristof told his audience, urging them to go out and work on behalf of women worldwide.

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May/June 2011