April 29, 2010

Nicholas Kristof Talks of Oppression of Women Worldwide

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Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told a story yesterday afternoon to a packed audience in Statler Hall about two 15-year-old Cambodian girls trapped in the despairing shackles of prostitution. He had spoken to both of them for an article he was working on as a reporter and was struck by the fact that after his article ran, they would return to their lives of physical and emotional abuse.

“I had a great front page story and these girls were going to stay behind and die of AIDS,” he said.

So he made a call to the legal counsel at The New York Times and asked if the newspaper had a policy on purchasing human beings. “It turns out they didn’t!” he said to warm laughter from the audience. He bought the girls’ freedom for a total of $350.

“When you get a receipt for buying a human being, it’s a disgrace on our century,” he said.

Kristof, who was joined on stage by his wife, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Cornell Board of Trustees member Sheryl WuDunn ’81, continually walked a narrow line between journalist and activist.

While telling the stories of young women who have endured widespread abuse in third-world nations, they made a heart-tugging plea to end the violence. Their claim that their work to save young girls was “unusual” for journalists was one of many similar statements that defined the unique nature of their jobs.

Kristof and WuDunn’s appearance, part of the the 20th anniversary celebration of the President’s Council for Cornell Women, focused on what they called the century’s most pressing problem — the worldwide oppression of women. This is also the subject of Half the Sky, their bestselling book released last year.

Kristof described the common humanitarian abuses that continue today as “not just a tragedy, but a real opportunity to take squandered assets and turn them into resources for families and communities.”

In order to solve these problems, the columnist outlined four agenda items: ending of human trafficking, lowering maternal mortality rates, using microfinance to help women make their own living, and providing education for all.

Kristof described human trafficking as a “modern form of slavery,” drawing parallels between the two practices while highlighting some ways that human trafficking is more destructive than slavery of the 18th century. While approximately 80,000 slaves were transported per year via the transatlantic slave trade, more than 800,000 people cross international borders annually as a result of human trafficking, Kristof noted. Additionally, victims of the human slave trade today are often more at risk due to their relative disposability.

“One of the things that protected slaves to some degree was their commercial value. They were worth a lot of money,” Kristof said. “Slave owers did not want them to die.”

An 18th century slave would be worth approximately $40,000 today, while a prostitute in a country like India or Pakistan would be worth only a few hundred dollars, according to Kristof.

“That is why brothel owners do gouge out their eyes or kill them,” he said.

Maternal health is another issue high on Kristof’s humanitarian to do list. He said that maternal mortality claims the lives of more than 350,000 women every year in poorer countries, especially in nations where women are marginalized.

Kristof advocated that microfinance and education are two causes that can lead the way in ending gender inequity worldwide.

One of the “major market failures” in poorer countries, Kristof explained, stems from misconceptions about microfinance. “Microfinance is not only about micro-lending,” Kristof said. “One of the crucial elements of it is micro-savings — giving families the capacity to save money.”

While Kristof admitted that there is no “silver bullet in development,” he expounded on how activists today are learning more about the role education plays in global development.

“We’re learning about how managing menstruation is a way to keep girls in school” he said, citing an Oxford University study that found that giving girls pads decreased their school absenteeism by half.

With 30 minutes in the talk remaining, Kristof and WuDunn took their seats on stage, allowing members of the audience to guide the conversation in a question and answer session.

A 16-year-old girl who identified herself as being from Ithaca High School described the oppression she and her friends and family have suffered — a devastating critique on our own culture if we can not help our own citizens to achieve gender equality, she said.

“We’re not trying to prioritize. We’re just trying to say there are problems around the world that people don’t know about,” WuDunn said. “We are living in a globalized world.”

One questioner asked Kristof how he felt after he purchased the two Cambodian girls out of prostitution, considering that so many other girls in the same circumstances were left behind.

Kristof noted that he was planning to purchase two girls, but one was with a client at the time and he did not want to purchase her until she was done, so he picked an alternate girl he had also spoken with. To this day, he said he wonders what happened to that first girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and therefore did not gain freedom.

“You just have to take reassurance in the changes you can make and the lives you can help even if you’re wary of the lives you can’t help,” he said.

Original Author: Emily Cohn