Feature Delivering women from oppression and investing in their talents is the key to improving life in developing countries, according to a journalist couple whose writings are inspiring others to lend a hand.
Empowered women bring rich rewards
Delivering women from oppression and investing in their talents is the key to improving life in developing countries, according to a journalist couple whose writings are inspiring others to lend a hand. Michelle Metallidis reports. It was while interviewing two teenage sex workers in Cambodia that Nicholas Kristof first felt a pang of conscience. The New York Times journalist had travelled to Phnom Penh in 1996 to report on Cambodia's sex trafficking industry, and, while sitting in one of the village's brothels, found himself contemplating the dismal fate of his subjects. "I walked out of there thinking I had this great story - that it was going to be front-page news and I was going to receive all this recognition for it - and then I thought: these girls are locked up in this brothel and they're probably going to die of Aids unless something is done. As a human you can't be neutral. So I chose the side of those girls."
Returning to the same country years later, the Pulitzer Prize winner arranged a controversial experiment. Finding two other teenage sex workers, he posed as a customer and bought their freedom. The price? A paltry US$350 (Dh1,285). That small sum hit a nerve with Kristof's readership. After chronicling the release and reintegration of the teenagers in a series of articles in the Times in 2004, the columnist was flooded with e-mails from readers who offered to wire him money if he could go back and free more women.
But, as he says, that was not the point. Freeing Srey Mom and Srey Neth from a life of forced prostitution entailed far more than simply paying money. Poverty was the reason they had been driven to sell their bodies, and poverty would drive them back. "Rescuing them involves more than just opening a door," he wrote in the last column of the series. Kristof eloquently offers a long-term solution in the recently published Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide. Co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, a former New York Times journalist, the book profiles women who have overcome traumatic circumstances to become successful entrepreneurs in impoverished pockets of the world.
Using the women's success as evidence, the book argues a simple point: if you want change for the better in developing countries, invest in women. "Things have really changed," says Kristof from his New York office. He and his wife pass the phone back and forth as they discuss how women's issues have shifted from being "soft" and marginalised to the mainstream. "After September 11, there was a lot of concern about how to create stable societies and how to fight terrorism," says Kristof. "Part of the answer seems to be to educate girls and bring women into the workforce. Among NGOs, there has also been a growing consensus that one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and extremism is through education. So these issues have gone from being frivolous women's issues to being security issues."
According to Kristof and WuDunn, female empowerment is the key to fighting poverty. Lenders who put money in the hands of women, particularly through microfinance initiatives, elevate the women's status and allow them a measure of control in household affairs. In turn, this changes local perceptions of female power and increases self-confidence. They point to Srey Rath, whose story is told in the book. The Cambodian teenager had been promised a dishwasher's job in Thailand by a group of traffickers who instead smuggled her across the border into Malaysia, where she was forced into sexual servitude. After escaping and finding her way back home, the non-government organisation American Assistance for Cambodia funded her start-up business - a push cart that sold keychains and other trinkets.
It transpired that she had incredible business savvy and is now able to support her family on her earnings, says Kristof. "Srey Rath became something of a local tycoon in her village. You multiply her by millions and you get the formula for economic development." Half The Sky presents other grassroots success stories from the battlefield of international development, where experts have long been searching for a "magic bullet" with which to address poverty.
There is Edna Adan, Somaliland's first foreign minister who cobbled together the funds to build a hospital on the site of a former garbage dump after civil war had destroyed the country's medical facilities; Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani girl who was gang-raped and used her compensation and donations from people around the world to set up a shelter and schools for fellow victims after prosecuting her attackers; Goretti Nyabanda, whose husband never allowed her to touch money, but who became one of the savviest local entrepreneurs in her Burundi village; and Meena Hasina from India, who works as an activist in the red-light district of her town after having been trafficked to a brothel at the age of nine.
Kristof is quick to acknowledge that a woman-focused development strategy faces significant obstacles. "That was true in the United States and it was manifestly true in China." The difference, he noted, was that China realised there was imminent power in putting half of its population to work. "One reason why China is growing like gangbusters today is that it's figured out women are an incredible economic resource; people weren't going to be nearly as rich if they didn't give women real opportunities."
Also, sexism and traditional social structures that discriminate against women are the rule for most of the world, not the exception. "China has historically favoured boys through a feudalistic system," says WuDunn, who has been a Times correspondent in Beijing and Tokyo. "So even though you had Mao Tse Tung [and the Communist revolution] educating women, unbinding their feet and letting them work, you still have things like sex-selective abortion, which produces more boys than girls."
By their count, more than 30 million girls in China are "missing" because of cultural practices such as infanticide and child abandonment, practices given impetus by China's "one child only" policy. Statistics in other countries make for similarly grim reading. According to The Lancet, the cultural pressure to have one son in the family has accounted for 10 million "missing" female births over the past two decades. In a 1992 study, the Nobel prize winner and economist Amartya Sen argued that more than 100 million women were missing worldwide because of general neglect in health, medicine and nutrition. Taken together, these statistics demonstrate a systematic elimination of women, whether subconsciously or overtly, which remains one of the 21st century's dirtiest truths.
Kristof and WuDunn have been journalists for most of their professional lives. They met as young reporters in 1986 and were the first married couple to receive the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in journalism. Their interest in the role of women in society was piqued when they were covering the Tiananmen Square riots of 1989 and came across a study that highlighted the plight of "missing" girls. "We realised there was a human rights violation of far greater magnitude," Kristof says.
The discovery challenged not only how they approached their reporting in China and elsewhere in Asia, but also how they engaged their subjects as well. In traditional journalism, the line between observer and participant is sacrosanct. Moving from being a news reporter to a more opinionated position is a hard one. "One thing you're trained to do is be a dispassionate observer," WuDunn says. "It's an unusual task because you have to present both sides of the story."
She says the push came once she and her husband moved away from hard reporting. "I kept urging Nick: You can't be either/or, and that's when we really started to grow." WuDunn, a third-generation Chinese American who cites her mother as a role model, says she never doubted the capability of women. "My grandmother's feet were bound, so my mother understood that her mother was not supposed to work. But she went to college and then ended up teaching."
Her family's own migrant experience has instilled a strong desire for her readers to connect with women on the other side of the world. "If my ancestors hadn't made that trip to America, we would still be there; my kids could still be peasants. We shouldn't be dismissive of 'those people over there'. We shouldn't say, 'Oh, they're so far'. Our entire country is made up of those people who came from 'over there'."
Kristof and WuDunn's efforts to chip away at society's apathy and to engage individuals in helping to unlock the potential of these women has met with notable successes. In one case that highlighted the power of the media, Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman who was sentenced to be gang-raped as an honour revenge in her village, received US$133,000 (Dh490,000) in donations from readers after Kristof reported on her plight in the Times. Subsequently, aid organisations such as Mercy Corps stepped in to field the donations. Today, she continues to pound down doors of families who refuse to send their daughters to school and to prosecute male attackers.
Kristof and WuDunn hope their accounts of women will continue to inspire people to lend a hand to development work. To this end, the authors list aid organisations on their website. "Ideally, we want people after they put down the book to find an NGO and issue that is meaningful to them and get involved," Kristof says. He admits he and WuDunn had no idea how the book would be received. But with endorsements from celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Khaled Hosseini and George Clooney, as well as extensive media coverage, including on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the message seems to be reaching the mainstream. "It feels as though everybody is indeed waking up and there is hope for a global movement on the topic."
Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide (Knopf Books) is available at www.amazon.com or www.halftheskymovement.org