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Dr. Alex Benzer

Dr. Alex Benzer

Posted: October 27, 2009 11:10 AM

'Half The Sky' With Nicholas Kristof: A Morally Persuasive Call to Action

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Every once in a while, a book comes out with such a compelling message that you have no choice but to be moved and take action in response to it. 

Last night I had the privilege of attending a talk by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof sponsored by the Harvard Club of Southern California.  Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, discussed his new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide which he co-wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.  In their lucid and levelheaded way, Kristof and WuDunn build a powerful moral case for fostering economic progress in the developing world by unleashing the potential of women.

The title of the book comes from the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” Kristof said that if the great moral struggle of the 19th century was the abolition of slavery and that of the 20th century racial equality, then that of the 21st century would be gender equality.  He illustrated the plight of girls and women in developing countries with vivid stories and sobering statistics that left us with no choice but to sit up and pay attention (and purchase not one but two copies of the book, in my case).

For example, Kristof remarked that up to the first year of life, Indian girls have the same mortality rate as the boys.  However, between the ages of 1 and 5, the girl mortality rate is 50% higher.  Because of selective abortion and preferential resource allocation to males in the past 50 years, 60 to 100 million girls are simply missing from the population.

Kristof noted that women are better targets for aid in poor countries since they tend to spend money more wisely than men.  While only 2% of the average family budget is spent on education, the men spend 20% on alcohol, tobacco, prostitution and sugary drinks.  A fraction of that spent on, say, mosquito nets or schooling makes a measurable impact on the family’s welfare and that of the community at large.  This is partially why focusing on helping women has such a disproportionate impact on overall welfare.

Kristof highlighted four problem areas worthy of our immediate attention:

1. Sex trafficking 

In 1780, at the peak of the slave trade, eighty thousand slaves were transported worldwide.  Last year, about eight hundred thousand women were trafficked across international borders for sexual slavery.  This does not even count the number of women who are kidnapped and coerced within the borders of their own country. 

Subsequent to greater awareness and outrage about this problem, the business model of the sex trade has started to erode in some places.  Encouragingly, Kristof witnessed this firsthand in Cambodia, where a lady eventually shut down her brothel and turned it into a grocery store because it had ceased being profitable. 

2. Maternal health

In poor countries, childbirth remains a life-threatening proposition for the mother, just as it was before 1900.  For example, a woman in Niger has a 1 out of 7 lifetime chance of dying during childbirth.  Kristof brought to our attention that in America, up to World War I, more women died every year in childbirth than soldiers in that war.  It wasn’t until women acquired the right to vote and became more respected members of society that maternal mortality rates went down.

3. Financial empowerment through microfinance: microlending and microsavings

By now, most people have heard of the power of microlending though the stories of Mohammad Yunus, Grameen Bank and kiva.org.  But what about microsavings?

“Where do you hide money in a hut with a door that doesn’t shut very well?” Kristof’s query brought into sharp relief our world of ubiquitous banks and ATMs with that of poor villages where money is hard to hide and access, especially for women who are sometimes not even allowed to touch money in patriarchal settings.  “When you’re having obstructed labor and can’t get the $80 for a caesarean section, you have a real problem,” said Kristof.  



4. Education

Kristof is not just a brave and talented journalist but also a wise one: he is able to see the elusive crux of the matter where conventional wisdom can clutter truth.  So it is said that building more bricks-and-mortar schools is the way to solve the education problem in poor areas. 

No -- that costs about $100 per student per year.  Turns out it’s much more cost-effective to de-worm the students and provide them with underwear and pads for managing menstruation (that was my second guess, too).  A single 50-cent dose of the antiparasitic mebendazole keeps a girl parasite-free for a year, keeping her from missing classes.  Underwear and sanitary pads also cut down absenteeism.  The fewer days of school missed, the lesser the chance of dropping out, forming the axis of the virtuous cycle of future prosperity.

Kristof then addressed some of the more common questions he gets about his work.  “Isn’t it depressing?”  He finds it more inspiring than depressing, especially when he witnesses the work of people like Somaly Mam who put their lives on the line to help victims of trafficking. 

“And why should we care?”  Besides the obvious humanitarian benefit of the work of empowering girls and women, Kristof reported that the people who involved themselves out of semi-detached noblesse oblige quickly found themselves deeply engaged in the work.  The work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates that this kind of work raises our baseline level of happiness. 

In conclusion, Kristof recounted the story of the tough-as-nails Darfur aid worker who came back to the U.S. and broke down sobbing at the sight of the bird feeder in her grandmother’s backyard.  She realized that not only did she have cleanliness, safety and abundance here, but also the luxury of attending to the needs of wild birds.  As such, she felt as preposterously fortunate as a lottery winner, as all people who are reading this article with a roof over their head, clean clothes on their body and food in their belly also should. 

Nicholas Kristof’s talk was enlightening and uplifting without being maudlin.  I felt invigorated by the information and encouraged by the options he provided us to help in a meaningful way.  He has all of those suggestions and much more in his deeply moving book, of which I encourage you to get at least two copies -- one for yourself and one for a woman you love.

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