With images of starving girls in an Ethiopian feeding center projected behind him, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued Monday that ending the oppression faced by women and girls around the world stands as the central moral challenge of the 21st century.
“Often when there isn’t enough food to go around, food is directed to sons and not daughters,” Kristof told a Mondavi Center audience. “When a son is sick, he’s taken to the doctor. When a daughter is sick, you sort of feel her forehead and say, ‘Well, let’s see how you’re doing tomorrow.’ ”
In a decade’s time, more girls are “discriminated to death” than all the people killed in the all of the genocides of the 21st century, said Kristof, the co-author of this year’s UC Davis Campus Community Book Project selection, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide.” He penned the book with his wife, fellow Pulitzer Prize winner and former Times colleague, Sheryl WuDunn.
The flip side of the deprivation and oppression women face is the opportunity they represent, Kristof said. When it comes to fighting poverty or creating more secure societies, investing in the education and health of women pays huge dividends.
“Women and girls aren’t the problem,” he said, “but the solution.”
Kristof wrote the first of a series of stories and columns on sex trafficking in 1997. He found kidnapped girls, some as young as 7 or 8 years old, living in brothels — sometimes in cages — that auctioned off their virginity.
At one point, he bought the freedom of two girls for $350.
“What really shook me, when I bought these two girls, is that I got written receipts for buying them, like buying a cow,” he said.
Kristof credited the U.S. State Department, aid organizations and journalists with pressuring Cambodian authorities enough that local police demanded bigger bribes to look the other way, forcing many brothels out of business.
Americans need to urge police here to not treat as criminals girls and women forced into prostitution and kept there under threat of violence — many of whom are runaways fleeing broken homes in disadvantaged communities — but instead reduce demand by arresting customers, he said.
He also urged support for organizations like the Sacramento nonprofit Bridget’s Dream, which works to combat trafficking.
“We (in the United States) don’t have the moral authority to tell other countries to clean up their act unless we do more right here at home,” he said.
Americans also must overcome their own “toxic” debate over reproductive rights and support family planning and maternal health efforts, Kristof said.
“In most of the world, just about the most dangerous thing a woman can do is get pregnant,” he said.
In Niger, for instance, one in seven women die during pregnancy or childbirth. For every woman who dies during childbirth worldwide, another 20 are injured, he said.
Kristof told the story of Mahabouba Mohammed, a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl who was raped, then gave birth alone. She suffered an obstetric fistula, which causes a woman to leak urine or feces through her vagina, and nerve damage in both legs.
Villagers left her in a doorless hut to be eaten by hyenas. She fought off the animals, then crawled 30 miles to find a missionary who, in turn, rushed her to an American surgeon who gave her the $450 surgery she needed. Mohammed is now a nurse at the same hospital.
Educating women increases their capacity to earn money and support their family while creating more stable and tolerant societies, Kristof said.
The subject of another of his columns, Beatrice Biira, collected firewood and water for her Ugandan family, which couldn’t afford to send her to school. The gift of a goat from a Connecticut church, through the charity Heifer International, enabled the family to earn the needed money by selling milk.
Biira excelled in school and became the first person from her village to study abroad, earning a degree at Connecticut College.
Kristof said that while there are reasons to be concerned about corruption and inefficiency in charitable organizations, there is equally real evidence of the positive effect they can have. Listening to the communities they are helping and evaluating the effectiveness of interventions has helped aid organizations do a better job, he said.
He urged students, in particular, to go abroad or work with the poor here at home, as a way to gain perspective and find fulfillment.
For information about other Campus Community Book Project events, see http://occr.ucdavis.edu/book-project.html.