For a man whose work is a litany of all the bad things that can happen to people, mostly women, Nick Kristof is a remarkably upbeat speaker. He started with poverty and the dire situation of girls in rural China, and ended with the difficulty of effective intervention in the developing world, touching upon human trafficking, forced marriages of 13-year-old girls, and mortality in childbirth along the way—a trip he managed with optimism, compassion and a certain amount of wit.
Nicholas D. Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and New York Timescolumnist, discussed his latest book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide (Knopf, 2009), co-authored with his wife, correspondent Sheryl WuDunn, to a packed Pope Auditorium at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Lecture Series on Thursday, Jan. 13. After an introduction by Scott Lurding, Phi Beta Kappa’s associate secretary, and Vincent C. Alfonso, Ph.D., associate dean in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Kristof took the audience back to rural China in 1990, where he wrote about the difficulty of keeping one 13-year-old girl, a star pupil, in school in the tiny village of Yejuao.
Dai Manju, the eldest child, had to drop out of school because her family couldn’t afford the annual $13 in tuition (which included room and board). The per capita income in the Dabie Mountains in central China was less than $60 a year, and Dai Manju’s family of five was much poorer than average, living in a bare mud hut, Kristof reported at the time.
“New York Times readers were very generous. Once we ran Dai Manju’s picture on the front page we were deluged with $13 checks,” he said ruefully.
But there was also a $10,000 donation, a vast sum in rural China, courtesy of a clerical error by Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, which dropped a decimal point on a $100 donation and mistakenly sent the school $10,000 instead (“the bank manager was another Phi Beta Kappa,” Kristof joked). When he contacted the bank about the error and “let slip the topic of my next article,” they gracefully made a $9,900 donation. After that, the village school was able to educate girls at no charge.
“So many girls had to drop out of school because parents didn’t want to pay $13 in school fees for a daughter,” he said. “You should be educated not by your chromosomes, but by your intellectual capacity.”
In much of the developing world girls are not valued as much as boys, according to Kristof. “There isn’t enough food, so you starve your daughter to feed your son.”
Kristof also told the audience about buying two women out of the Cambodian sex trade and helping to set them up in business with NGOs. “One cost $150, and the other just over $200,” he said. “I got receipts. When you get a receipt for another human being in the 21st century, it really brings home the dire circumstances for women.”
He called the oppression of women and girls “the moral challenge of our time,” akin to the problem of slavery in the 19th century and totalitarianism in the 20th century. But despite the often bleak circumstances of the women he’s written about, Kristof is hopeful that their lives can be changed, and that empowering and educating women is a way to transform their societies.
“Men are more likely to spend money on instant gratification,” Kristof said. “On alcohol, cigarettes, gambling and prostitutes. Women are more likely to spend money on their children and on education.” He said if we can shift just a small percentage of income from men to women, we can improve conditions in the developing world.
On a purely pragmatic level, if you want to chip away at global poverty and improve global security, you should invest in women’s education, he said, which will pay enormous dividends. “Women are not the problem, women are the solution,” he said.
He is optimistic about effecting change, not least because helping to do so can transform the lives of the donors. “We have found out that if donors get involved, if they do more than give money, they are uplifted, too,” Kristof said. “When one engages in a cause larger than oneself, it gives one a new perspective.”
The former bureau chief for the Times in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo, Kristof’s column appears in the paper on Sundays and Thursdays. He and WuDunn are the first married couple to win a Pulitzer in journalism for their coverage of China as New York Times correspondents. They also received the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement, and the George Polk and Overseas Press Club awards, among other prizes.
The Phi Beta Kappa lecture was hosted by the Graduate School of Education, which held a reception and book signing for Kristof following his talk. The lecture series was established to provide Phi Beta Kappa members with opportunities for intellectual fellowship and to allow the society to participate in a national dialogue about important issues of the day.