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Educating Women Steadies the World


Photo by Heidi Hoffman

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that gender inequity is the central moral challenge of the 21st century in a public lecture that he delivered to a packed audience on Monday, April 1, in Reed’s Kaul Auditorium.

Using persuasive anecdotes from his book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Kristof began with the premise: “What slavery was to the 19th century, and totalitarianism was to the 20th century, gender inequity is to our time.”

The lecture was cosponsored by the Munk-Darling Lecture Fund in International Relations, as well as by the student group Reedies for Sexual Health Awareness (RSHA) and the offices of student services and student activities.

RSHA polled students who recommended Kristof. Audrey Lorberfeld ’13, founder of the group, said she became aware of Kristof's work with sex trafficking through ECPAT USA, an organization that combats both sex trafficking and pornography of minors. However, another RSHA member voiced criticism of Kristof’s work, especially his approach to issues such as the controversial move to buy sex workers.

“I had been following Kristof’s work for the New York Times for some time and was a fan of his domestic journalism on problems women are facing,” Lorberfeld said. “Because of the controversy and fame surrounding Kristof, we decided we wanted to bring him to Reed.”

A native Oregonian and son of Reed alumnus Ladis K.D. Kristof '55, Nicholas Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and has worked as a columnist for the Times since 2001, where he frequently reports on global poverty, health, and gender. Half the Sky is one of three books he has coauthored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

While living in China in the ’70s, Kristof and Sheryl began to see the degree to which brutality and oppression end up being targeted by gender. Though most people think there are more women in the world than men, the reverse is actually true. With equal access to food and healthcare, women live longer than men, accounting for higher populations of women in America and Europe. But in other parts of the world, Kristof said, they are the victims of lethal discrimination.

Inequitable access to food and medical care and the advent of ultrasound machines that prompt the abortion of female fetuses have resulted in a reduction of the female population by 55 to 120 million.

“To slice and dice it differently,” Kristof said, “in any 10-year period you have more females put to death than all of the people who died in all of the genocides of the 20th century.”

Prostitution is a modern form of slavery, but human trafficking is a complicated issue. While people assume the problem is men, Kristof said, most brothel owners and human traffickers are women. He told of being able to purchase another human being for $150 in Cambodia. In the United States, human trafficking often takes the form of pimps preying upon runaway girls. The fact that prosecutors treat these girls as partners in crime belies their reality as victims.

Childbirth is considered a blessed event in countries like the U.S., but around the world one in seven women still die giving birth. And for every woman who dies giving birth, 20 more are seriously injured. Forced into marriages at early ages, young women often experience obstructed labor due to pelvises that aren’t fully formed. This results in the death of the fetus and serious internal injuries to the mother, who often receives no medical care.

“One of the easiest ways to reduce the number of women dying in pregnancy is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies,” Kristof said. “More than 200 million women around the world, who don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have any access to family planning. Because this issue is so divisive, there’s been very little progress in the last quarter century.”

There are no silver bullets to combat the world’s problems, Kristof said, but bringing women out of the margins of society produces a calming effect. Statistics show that educating women dramatically reduces not only the number of children they have, but also helps ameliorate poverty and terrorism.

He said that U.S. generals in Afghanistan have advocated educating girls, because they see the correlation between female literacy and a reduction of Taliban attacks on U.S. troops. The “youth bubble,” a disproportionate number of people between the ages of 15 and 24, correlates highly with instability and violence. High birth rates lead not only to this bubble, but also to ethnic conflict, civil unrest and environmental stress.

Addressing questions from the audience, Kristof likened effective change to the way that auto safety was dealt with in the U.S. in the ’60s. Highway fatality rate was reduced by 80%, not because of one magical solution, but through a combination of things like seat belts, padded dashboards, better bumpers, crash testing, and air bags.

Asked how he’d respond to charges that his work asserted Western superiority over other cultural practices, Kristof responded that his wife’s grandmother had her feet bound in China, a practice that was abandoned only after pressure from the West.

“We need to be respectful of other cultures,” he said, “but we have to weigh that against our respect for freedom, autonomy, and equality. If someone wants to burn a widow after her husband has died, the practice of sati, we should protest against that.”

Common bands of humanity lead us to speak out, he said, and our passion and empathy should not depend on the color of another person’s passport.

Tags: Nicholas Kristof