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New York Times Columnist Examines Women’s Plight in Developing World


Nicholas D. Kristof calls the oppression of women and girls “the moral challenge of our time.”
Photos by Bruce Gilbert

For a man whose work is a litany of all the bad things that can happen to people, mostly women, Nicholas D. Kristof is a remarkably upbeat speaker.

At Fordham last month, he started with the dire situation of girls in rural China and ended with the difficulty of effective intervention in the developing world. Along the way, he touched upon human trafficking, forced marriages of 13-year-old girls and mortality in childbirth. But through it all, he conveyed optimism, compassion and a certain amount of wit.

Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author andNew York Times columnist, wrote his latest book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf, 2009), with his wife, correspondent Sheryl WuDunn. He discussed it on Jan. 13 before a packed Pope Auditorium as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Lecture Series.

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 told the audience about difficulty in keeping one 13-year-old girl—a star pupil—in school in the tiny village of Yejuao, China in 1990.

Dai Manju, the eldest child, had to drop out because her family couldn’t afford the annual $13 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 said.

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 because parents didn’t want to pay $13 in fees,” he said. “You should be educated not by your chromosomes, but by your intellectual capacity.”

In much of the developing world, boys are valued more than girls, according to Kristof. “There isn’t enough food, so you starve your daughter to feed your son.”

He also told the audience about buying two women out of the Cambodian sex trade and helping to set up businesses 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 about whom he has written, 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 children and education.”

He said if we can shift 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, Kristof 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 givemoney, 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 writes a column that 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 others.

The Phi Beta Kappa lecture was hosted by the GSE, which held a reception and book signing for Kristof after 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.


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