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Turning Oppression Into Opportunity

New York Times Journalist Nicholas Kristof Discusses Half the Sky


Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times since 2001, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who writes op-ed columns that appear twice a week. In anticipation of his Thursday, October 29, visit to Campbell Hall, Kristof spoke with me earlier this month about his new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which he wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

What struck me about Half the Sky is how it combines horrifying accounts of the seemingly infinite number of ways that women are brutalized around the world with inspired accounts of women who against all odds stand up to their tormentors and ultimately prevail. The women have been gang raped, burned, had acid thrown in their faces, suffered genital cutting and untreated fistulas, yet go on to create a clinic, a hospital, a business, a school, a social movement. How have these women prevailed? Theirs is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the strength that so many people have. People often ask me if it’s depressing to cover sex trafficking, global health, and global poverty, but the truth is that while you see some terrible things, you encounter these extraordinary people. Their uplifting accounts tend to reassure me more than those atrocities depress me. In writing Half the Sky, we deliberately chose stories that were inspiring and uplifting, because we think the humanitarian community sometimes does a disservice to itself by focusing on stories that are simply depressing, stories that tend to turn people off. Americans want to be associated with things that are successful, things that work. It’s striking that corporate CEOs are always unbelievably optimistic, even when their company is going down the drain. [Non-governmental organization] leaders often focus on all the things that can amplify the sense of despair in a way that ultimately is unhelpful. So we wanted to write an inspiring, uplifting book that focuses on all that can go right, if resources are applied correctly.

UCSB's Arts & Lectures brings Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof to Campbell Hall to discuss his new book, <em>Half the Sky</em>.
Click to enlarge photo

UCSB’s Arts & Lectures brings Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof to Campbell Hall to discuss his new book, Half the Sky.

I have one minor quibble with your title. Notwithstanding its Chinese roots, it has always seemed to me that women actually hold up three-quarters of the sky in most places, since in addition to having become the world’s workforce, they often go home after they leave the factory and do the housework as well. Yes, it depends very much on country and culture. Women often end up doing a huge amount of the housework, the fetching of water and firewood, as well as certain amounts of agriculture. Because they don’t have decision-making authority in many cultures, their work sometimes tends to grow. For example, it may be that in a village, women had to go 45 minutes each way to get water, but as the village population grows, the well is no longer adequate, so now women have to go to a well that is two-and-a-half hours away. Because women don’t count for much in male-dominated societies, the resources are not committed to dig a well closer-by.

You argue that China has emerged as such an impressive power because of what you call the “girl effect”-millions of young Chinese women have moved from the rural west to east coast factories, sparking an economic revolution. Is factory work an answer to ending the brutalization of women? Giving women employment opportunities is crucial, and that employment can come in a number of ways. For some women it will be in the retail sector, for others it will be in making small products. But overall, it’s hard to see how you could amply ramp up employment in poor countries if you don’t have low-wage manufacturing, particularly for Africa, which has negligible manufacturing. I think it will be crucial for Africa’s long-term prospects to get more factories-to develop a garment industry, for example. Women would be huge beneficiaries. It would give them an area where they can compete as effectively as men and bring in even more money than their husbands or brothers.

Nicholas Kristof

  • When: Thursday, October 29, 2009, 8 p.m.
  • Where: UCSB Campbell Hall, 574 Mesa Rd., Santa Barbara, CA
  • Cost: $5 - $10
  • Age limit: 14+

Full event details

I’m a longtime anti-sweatshop activist, and when I first read your New York Times article “Two Cheers for Sweatshops,” which was published almost exactly 10 years ago, it made my hair stand on end. Do you really believe that organizations fighting to end sweatshop abuses actually are doing women a disservice? I think they are doing a disservice in some cases. Often, the particular women in a particular factory who are the object of a complaint are beneficiaries, but I am afraid that the general scrutiny over manufacturers discourages them from going to the poorest countries, such as those in Africa. I am trying to figure out how we can get more manufacturing into such places, whether it be Laos, the poorer parts of Indonesia, or, certainly, Africa. There are a lot of reasons for manufacturers to avoid these places, including infrastructure and so on, but I think one reason is the fear that they will get embarrassed because the wages will be so bad.

So you think that China could provide a model for, say, Africa? As China has moved up the value chain, factory conditions have improved somewhat in many places, and legislation such as China’s new Labor Contract Law is intended to provide some degree of worker protection. That’s right. And the workers’ safety issues are an area where public-sector lobbying tends to be effective because if you’re a worker, then you can make decisions to some degree about whether you want to work in a factory or whether you want to do something else. Even if they lock the fire escapes you may figure that the risk that you’re going to be burned up is pretty low, so it’s not something that is likely to be a major part of your calculation. But if every factory locks up its fire exits, then it’s a different story: Ultimately, there will be a lot of people who will be burned and even die in factory fires. There are clear benefits to the workers in requiring basic factory safety. But I’m afraid that if you’re Nike and you’re wondering whether you should go into Liberia or not, then you’re going to know that any factory in Liberia is going to have a zillion problems, and you’re going to be worried that the New York Times is going to find those problems and that will undermine your brand, and you will stay out of Liberia.

Because of public scrutiny about working conditions, companies like Nike won’t open factories in countries like Liberia, so as a result women are more likely to wind up in even worse circumstances-for example, prostitution or sexual slavery. Yes, it tends to drive companies to have better, more capital-intensive factories in somewhat better-off countries like China, Malaysia, or Mexico-but not in the poorest countries. Nike has some charitable programs in Liberia, but what would most desperately help Liberians would be to open a factory there-something they haven’t done and that nobody else has done either. This isn’t the only reason that nobody wants to make T-shirts or flip-flops in Liberia. There are a zillion reasons why manufacturing there would be a headache, but it would also be the best thing possible for Liberians.

In your book, you argue that taking up the cause of women throughout the world is not only a morally compelling mission, it’s also good for business, and even raises the “happiness level” of those who get involved. Why is fighting for women’s rights so good on so many fronts? There is growing evidence that empowering women is an effective way to fight poverty, extremism, and violence. That’s why the Pentagon is now promoting girls’ education in Afghanistan. And in terms of the benefit to the American who gets involved, frankly, the record of foreign aid is somewhat mixed: It has an imperfect record in terms of benefitting the recipients, but a perfect record of helping the supposed benefactor. So in Half the Sky, we talk about people who initially were reluctant to get involved, yet they did so and soon found that it was incredibly fulfilling and enriching, and that they were benefiting every bit as much as the people who were the targets of their efforts.

You also argue that Americans must bridge what you call the “God Gulf”-secular liberals must make common cause with true believers, just as “when liberal deists and conservative evangelicals joined forces to overthrow slavery.” How have fundamentalist Christians and liberal humanists seen eye-to-eye with positive results? Good work has been done by liberal feminists and evangelicals, despite a sometimes tense partnership. As a result, the State Department has been able to issue annual trafficking-in-persons reports that put real pressure on foreign governments. For example, I’ve seen the improvements Cambodia’s sex trade: There no longer are 11-year-old girls openly for sale outside of Phnom Penh. That is because of this American pressure that came about because of cooperation across the traditional divide. I just wish there was more of this cooperation and in more areas.

Your chapter “Is Islam Misogynistic?” has been criticized as being soft on the current way Islam is being practiced in many countries. Would you care to comment? Clearly, Islamic countries have a disproportional problem with oppressing women, but there are also a number of Muslim countries that really treat women very well. I don’t think it’s useful or accurate to say the problem is Islam, period. I think it’s also crucial to recognize that cultures can change. My wife’s mother had her feet bound; they grew to a size of only a few inches. Foot binding was embedded deeply in Chinese culture. It no longer is. I think that likewise honor killing, the locking of women in the home-these are things that even where deeply embedded, these cultures can move on.

So it’s cultural, not religious? I think it is largely cultural. Although in a number of Muslim countries people cite their religion as justification for engaging in behaviors that we find appalling, you also see that with education these justifications tend to disappear. In Pakistan, for example, people will often cite religion as a reason not to educate their daughters. Yet in Bangladesh, once part of Pakistan, more girls are in high school than boys. I think we exaggerate how impervious cultures are to change.

What new insights have you and your wife developed in researching this book? To take one example, we started out inclined to favor a regulated model for prostitution. But when we actually looked at the empirical evidence around the world, in areas where trafficking was a problem, it seemed that model really didn’t work that well: Side-by-side with legal prostitution, you typically had a flourishing underground market with underaged girls forced into prostitution. In contrast, those countries that supported a tougher approach tended to do better at uprooting child prostitution. To me, at least, the most promising model involves sweeps that focus on the demand side, arresting the customers and not the prostitutes.

How do you and your wife balance your roles as activist crusaders for better lives for women with your roles as reporters, who are suppose to be reporting objectively? It is true that neutrality and staying on the sidelines is imbedded deeply in any journalist’s DNA. It’s often a delicate balance. I think that at the end of the day, one’s journalistic obligation to try to stay neutral is trumped by one’s human obligation to try to save somebody’s life, to prevent some type of injury to a fellow human being.

Your book is a compelling call to action. How can ordinary people get involved in a way that will make a real difference in the lives of women around the world? Go to our Web site, halftheskymovement.org, which provides a wealth of information, many stories, and numerous ways to get involved. At the end of the book, we also list steps that anybody can take in the next 10 minutes, including Web sites where people can donate money, sponsor a particular girl or woman, and sign up for email updates. We also urge people to join the CARE Action Network [can.care.org], which will help you to speak out and reach policymakers. So I hope that people will dip their toes in, and see how they can get involved.

4•1•1

Nicholas Kristof comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall in Thursday, October 29, to discuss Half the Sky and deliver a lecture about how women worldwide are turning oppression into opportunity. There will also be a screening of the film Reporter, which follows Kristof into Africa, on Monday, October 26, at Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

Richard Appelbaum is professor of global & international studies and sociology at UCSB, where he directs the Master's program in global studies.



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