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Kristof discusses global oppression of women

According to an old Chinese proverb, women hold up half the sky. Looking at the immense problems around the globe like global warming and a worldwide economic recession, half the sky is already falling. According to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the key to lifting the sky back up will rely on the worldwide empowerment of women.

Following the opening appearance of best-selling author Tracy Kidder at the first lecture of the 2009 Wooster Forum, the College brought the Pulitzer-prize winning columnist to campus last Tuesday as part of its continuing series titled ìGlobal Citizens: Turning Passion into Action.”

Kristof is the most accomplished lecturer brought to the College since fellow Times columnist David Brooks was brought to campus three years ago as part of the 2006 Wooster Forum series. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, also a Times columnist, were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of Chinaís Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Kristof was awarded a second Pulitzer prize in 2006 for his columns on the genocide in Darfur.

Kristofís discussion, however, focuses not on his previuous work and accomplishments, but on his brand new book that he has published with his wife, ìHalf the Sky.” The subtitle of the book is† ìTurning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” This theme centered his discussion on Tuesday evening as he described seeing the mistreatment and exploitation of women and girls in his two decades of reporting in Asia and Africa.

Kristof described that to fully understand ó and subsequently solve ó problems in developing countries, it is necessary to look at these issues through a gendered lens. ìThe central moral challenge in the 19th century was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the oppression of women and girls throughout the world,” said Kristof.

In these poor and developing areas, unequal access to education, health care and food is a staple of everyday life. The statistics are staggering. Boys are twice as likely to receive vaccination as girls, and the mortality rate of girls ages one through five is twice as high. ìItís characteristic that when thereís not enough food to go around, the boys are fed while the girls are starved,” said Kristof.

When addressing development problems in these areas, raising the standard of living for women has to be part of the equation. ìIf you want to confront poverty and extremism, the most effective way is to bring education to women and girls, and bring them into the formal economy,” he said.

In countries that have few resources to begin with and are hoping to further economic and political development, not including the contributions of women is simply not an option. Kristof cited Bill Gates, a philanthropist and the founder of Microsoft, when he said that countries cannot hope to develop in a sustainable manner if ìthey do not utilize half the talent in the country.”

Kristof relayed stories that seemed other-worldly to the audience comprised of privileged college students with the opportunity of attending a private liberal arts school with tuition upwards of $40,000. Kristof described the story of a 13-year-old in Cambodia who had been sold to a brothel by her step-father. The girl had been joyously reunited with her mother, but in the end was not able to return home. The reason? The brothel owner had paid good money for the girl, and the mother did not have enough money to buy her own child back from him.

The problem in these countries doesnít rest solely on the domineering shoulders of men. The owner of the brothel Kristof visited in Cambodia was actually a woman. Kristof later shared that more than half the brothels owned in Cambodia are owned by women. The root of the problem isnít as simple as we may think. ìThereís tendency to think the problem is oppressive men, but itís more complex than that,í said Kristof.

There are signs of hope. Kristof explained that as part of the U.S. Department of Justiceís attempt to crack down on human trafficking around the world, progress is being made. This of course hasnít stamped out the problem but through human rights initiatives, situations are improving. Kristof relayed in a half-sarcastic, but truthful, tone that police now demand higher bribes to turn the other eye. At the Cambodian brothel Kristof visited, police eventually demanded $5 every day. This caused the brothel to question whether the business was worth it. It eventually closed, and reopened as a grocery store. Before it closed, with the help of the New York Times, Kristof returned to the brothel before it closed and bought the freedom of the 13-year-old girl to reunite her with her mother. ìWe havenít solved problems fully, but we can make progress,” he said.

Kristof also highlighted the influence of microfinance groups like Kiva to help entrepreneurs in the developing world. Organizations like Kiva and Global Giving connect donors to small community based projects. With problems as vast as world poverty, Kristof admitted one initiative often seems like a drop in the bucket. However, these contributions make an immeasurable difference to those whom they do help. Kristof stressed to the audience members not to ìfeel that you have to solve all the worldís problems to make a difference.”

If more students can adopt an attitude like this, the skies may be lifted and open up once again.

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