Montana State University

Kristof tells MSU crowd that greater gender equity is the cause of the century

October 13, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger Cantrell, MSU News Service


Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist, spoke Monday evening at MSU. He is pictured here talking with a group of students earlier in the day. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner told a large crowd gathered at Montana State University Monday evening that the central cause of our time will be to create greater gender equity around the globe.

New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof said this century's paramount moral challenge is the violence and brutality inflicted on women and girls in developing countries, just as in the 19th century, where the greatest moral challenge was slavery, and the 20th century, where it was totalitarianism.

"It's a question of lost potential," Kristof told an audience of about 1,000 people gathered at MSU's SUB ballrooms. "The misuse (of women and girls) is not only a tragedy, it's also a huge opportunity."

The lecture followed the release of Kristof's new book, "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," which details why sex trafficking, gender-based violence and maternal mortality belong on the international agenda. Kristof, 50, wrote the book with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, who was the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Originally from Yamhill, Ore., Kristof graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University and then went on to study law at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He studied Arabic in Cairo, Chinese in Taipei, lived on four continents, reported on six, and has traveled to more than 140 countries, plus all 50 states, every Chinese province and every main Japanese island.

In 1990 Kristof and WuDunn earned a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their reporting on the pro-democracy student movement and the related Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Kristof won his second Pulitzer in 2006 for his columns that focused on genocide in Darfur.

According to one study Kristof cited Monday evening, between 60 and 100 million women are missing from around the world. Kristof pointed to several things to explain this disparity, such as sex-selective abortion, where mothers choose to abort their female fetuses, families living in poverty who often choose to feed their sons and starve their daughters, and a reluctance to seek health care for girls when they are sick.

Sex trafficking is truly modern slavery, Kristof said, with 800,000 girls trafficked each year, by coercion, across international boundaries. Also, violence against women and girls, such as acid attacks, mass rapes, genital mutilation and bride burnings, are shockingly common occurrences in the developing world.

Throughout the lecture, Kristof interspersed stories about women and girls he had met while reporting in developing countries. He showed images of some of these individuals, including a girl whose eye had been gouged out by a brothel owner and a woman whose husband had thrown acid on her face.

"I couldn't believe this was happening in the 21st century," Kristof said after describing some of the horrors he witnessed and heard about in brothels. It "should truly shame us all."

But though the problems are tremendous, Kristof thinks there are solutions. For example, educating girls can be an extraordinarily powerful tool in fighting poverty and extremism.

"Women and girls aren't the problem," Kristof said. "They're the solution."

In general, women and girls are the greatest unexploited resources in poor countries, Kristof added.

He pointed to microfinance loans -- or small cash loans with no interest -- as one way to assist women and their families in developing countries. One woman he met in Pakistan, he said, received a $65 microloan and started an embroidery business. When she couldn't keep up with the demand for her goods, she began hiring other people, eventually employing 30 different families. With the money she earned, she invested in her daughters' education and was able to do things like install running water and electricity in her family's home.

The Pakistani woman's stories, and others he told, are an "example of how you can take these women who would otherwise be completely squandered and turned into real assets, not just for themselves, but for their families," Kristof said.

In addition to microfinance, he noted that investments in education and health care for women and girls in developing countries are some of the most successful forms of aid.

Kristof said education is especially important. He praised Bozeman's Greg Mortenson for his work to build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan through the Bozeman-based Central Asia Institute. Mortenson's work is especially admirable because Kristof thinks education may be the single most transformative answer for the problems in the developing world.

For people who wonder if it's depressing to report on such terrible problems, Kristof admits it is difficult.

"But, side by side with the very worst of humanity, you invariably see the very best," he said. "I come back from these places truly inspired by these people."

Kristof thinks many people want to help, but are worried about corruption and bureaucracy in aid organizations. Asking whether aid really works is a fair question, and it's important to acknowledge that there are good reasons to be skeptical about aid, he said. But, many projects have also been very successful.

"There are so many groups out there that are doing extraordinary work," Kristof said.

A question and answer session followed Kristof's remarks, during which he invited people to visit www.halftheskymovement.org to learn more and to act.

Kristof's visit to MSU was sponsored by ASMSU, the MSU Leadership Institute, the Office of the President, the MSU Humanities Institute, the Parent Family Association, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Lori and Scott Lawson.

Carmen McSpadden, (406) 994-7667 or cmcspadden@montana.edu