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

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

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


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


By now, most people have heard of the power of microlending

though the stories of Mohammad Yunus, Grameen Bank and

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

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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