Interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Posted by Goodreads on December 1, 2009
Husband-and-wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn call women's rights the moral issue of the 21st century. They've racked up quite a few frequent-flier miles reporting on this subject as journalists. Their coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests in China earned them a Pulitzer Prize, a first for a married couple, and Kristof, a New York Times columnist who focuses on human rights abuses, won a second Pulitzer in 2006 for his coverage of genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Their new book, Half the Sky, explains how female empowerment is one of the most effective tools for eradicating poverty and extremism. Kristof and WuDunn chatted with Goodreads about how this issue has become a priority on an international level.

Goodreads: Half the Sky focuses on women's education and targeting women for foreign aid. These techniques are relatively new. Why the sudden focus on women?

Nicholas Kristof: Women's rights were always recognized as a worthy issue, but it was always marginalized. It didn't have the traction that goes to issues that are central to our national interest. Since 9/11, it has mattered hugely that there is good evidence that one way to tackle terrorism is to educate girls and bring them into the economy. The fact that you have American generals sitting around Afghanistan one moment talking about air strikes and the next moment talking about how to get more girls in school—I think that gives huge credibility to this issue. It is so much more powerful when you have generals and diplomats talking about the security consequences of failing to educate girls than when you have a bunch of do-gooders saying it's "wrong" [not to educate girls].

GR: Why have we been slow to recognize the potential of women as a development tool?

Sheryl WuDunn: We have been slow. People don't like to talk about it that much. Certainly in the societies where it happens, people don't like to talk about it. It takes outsiders to do that, and people are sensitive about being critical of other cultures. But this is not a cultural issue; it is just a human rights issue. My grandmother's feet were bound. In one generation that was changed, and that's because there were people in China and people outside China who said, "This is outrageous. We have to change this." And they did. I'm glad they weren't cowed, because I'm glad my mother's feet weren't bound, and that my feet weren't bound! When something is a flagrant violation of human rights, we should speak out no matter what.

GR: When did you first identify the status of women and girls as an important issue?

SW: It really developed organically over a number of years. When we were in China covering Tiananmen Square, certainly we were outraged by the fact that all these students were killed. It was horrific. But then in the following year we started traveling around China, and we came across some things that were equally as shocking, but that no one had written anything about. Every year there were 39,000 baby girls who died before the age of one, and no one was writing about this. It reflected a disregard for baby girls, and that's when we started looking deeply.

NK: Since the beginning of the 1990s, China has succeeded in overcoming a great deal of poverty by empowering women, by figuring out how to use the female half of its population more intelligently than a lot of countries were. Also in the 1990s I encountered sex trafficking in a way that just blew me away. It felt like slavery, and I had not imagined that you would have slavery 150 years after abolition. The combination of those things got us thinking, and the more we reported, the more we became both aghast at the oppression and also inspired by the opportunity—if one wanted to chip away at poverty and extremism.

GR: How does educating women change the dynamic within the family unit? Are women treated better by their fathers or husbands?

SW: Families in the developing world don't care about human rights. They care about how much money is this woman costing them, how much is she bringing into the household. And if she has a job and is bringing in income, that elevates her status immediately. That's what they did in China: They educated everybody, and girls could go to school, too. Education is very important, but it is not just education. They also then said that these educated women could get jobs in the formal labor force. That meant that they could go work in factories and that they had some money to send home, and right then—that brings them economic value and raises their status within their households. You multiply that within the village, within the county, within the province, and soon they are contributing to the GDP. China's now-giant economy was jump-started on the backs of women. It was their export apparel industry—the clothes, bags, and shoes that Americans wear—that really jump-started their economy.

GR: Goodreads member Judith writes, "We easily throw money to charities and don't really get into the trenches." Half the Sky is a call to action. What do you hope people will do after they read the book?

NK: We really want people to move from being upset as they read the book to being engaged in these causes. At the end of the book we list four things people can do in the next ten minutes—the afterword lists a bunch of organizations that are doing great work—and we want people not just to be check writers but also to be volunteers, to go visit a project they may have adopted, and to actually spend time in the grass roots. It is a transformative experience. This may veer into maudlin self-help, but I really do think that these kinds of projects not only empower people in Pakistan or Somalia, but they are hugely empowering for Americans. Get involved in a cause larger than one's self. I can't think of any cause larger than the role of women around the world.

One of the things that surprised Sheryl and me when we were writing the book was how often Americans engaged in these kinds of efforts started off thinking it was going to be a sacrifice, a burden, something they grudgingly decided was the right thing to do. And then over time they realized that they were benefiting as much as anybody. That's been our experience. Efforts to help other people have a pretty mixed record, but they have an almost perfect record in helping ourselves.

GR: You've traveled to so many impoverished places and witnessed such dire conditions—how do you remain optimistic?

NK: When you travel in these really terrible places, you see atrocities, abuses—and it's enraging. But, at least for me, what always leaves an even more powerful impression is the aid workers, the volunteers, the other people who are working to make a difference. I come back awed by their courage, their humanity, and often their effectiveness, and that's what lingers in my mind above all. I manage to come back from brothels in Cambodia or rape zones in Congo or Sudan truly inspired by the possibilities of humanity, rather than depressed by the atrocities.

GR: Is there a certain country or region where you've seen a notable amount of progress in the last five to ten years?

NK: Over a longer period, progress in China is just incredible. We often psych ourselves out by thinking that oppression of women is embedded in cultures and just can't be changed. A hundred years ago brutality toward women was deeply embedded in Chinese culture, from female infanticide to foot binding, and China's culture changed. My wife and her family were, in a sense, beneficiaries of that.

In the last decade or so, in the area of sex trafficking Cambodia has definitely improved. There are still a lot of abuses, but it is so much better off than what it was when I first began reporting on trafficking there in 1996.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual habits?

NK: A fair amount of this was done while also writing columns [for The New York Times], so I would do the writing in the mornings, at night, on the weekends, and Sheryl the same. We did take some time off to work on the book, and then we plowed away.

GR: Cowriting is especially challenging. How do you divide the work?

NK: People always ask us how we manage to write together and stay married. We've produced three kids as well as three books, and in general the kids tend to be a more difficult joint management task. The books don't play you off each other. The books go to bed. The books never become terrible twos or teenagers. And the stakes are lower. If you screw up a book, well, that's too bad. It's not quite the same as screwing up on a kid.

GR: Sheryl, would you agree?

SW: Totally and absolutely! This is our third book together, so we're used to it. Also, when you are a journalist, you are used to the editing process, so you don't fight when someone else has a view on something. We know it's a process writers go through. We plot out the book together as a joint project, and then we divide up the work. You take first crack at this one, I'll take first crack at that one, and then we switch and edit each other.

GR: What do your three children think of Mom and Dad's work?

NK: We did take our three kids with us on some of the reporting trips. Sheryl and I debated whether we should take them to the brothels in Cambodia that we were writing about. We made a joint trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. We wondered about the propriety of taking either our 11-year-old daughter or our teenage sons into these brothels where we had done interviews. In the end, we decided that this is a part of life and that we should show them what was going on there.

We met a girl who had her eye gouged out by one of the brothel owners, and I think that left a pretty deep impression on our kids, but in a good way. It made them realize the severity of the needs out there and connected with them personally, and I think and hope it will galvanize them to be more empathetic, more compassionate, and a little more engaged in these kinds of issues, which is certainly what we want as parents.

I feel like a bad dad this fall because I've been running around so much on this book tour. Sheryl and I have been taking turns, so there's no next book in the works right now. We want some time to redeem ourselves in the eyes of our kids before we take on another book project. They're proud of us and they admire the book's themes, but they also want their parents home.

GR: Do you have any books, authors, or ideas that have influenced your writing?

NK: Way back as a university student, I was really influenced by a writer for The Guardian named Victor Zorza, whom I never met. He moved to India and spent a couple of years living in an Indian village, writing about India through the microcosm of his village. I found it a very enlightening and powerful way to write about these kinds of broad trends. I borrowed from that idea periodically as a foreign correspondent. Using microstories to tell a larger picture is certainly what animates Half the Sky.

The other element, which is related, is that Sheryl and I were both frustrated by how difficult it is to engage people in humanitarian problems halfway around the world. We became interested in research in social psychology during the last dozen years or so—how one builds empathy, how one gets people to care. There's a scholar named Paul Slovic who has done fascinating work on how one makes these connections. Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia has also done some work in this area. It turns out that empathy and moral judgments are an emotional process, not a rational one. They're based on storytelling, and people want to be a part of something positive, not something depressing and failed. Those findings helped shape the way we approached Half the Sky, and maybe are one reason why we emphasized the inspiring stories of people who have really done incredible work. We wanted to leave people with an uplifting aftertaste in their mouths, not a depressing one.

GR: What's next?

SW: We're developing an extension to Half the Sky: an online social action campaign. Half the Sky as a book is really important, and it gives a lot of the intellectual underpinnings for the issues, but a book is not as mass as we would like it to be. So we're fund-raising and developing an online platform, which we think will have a wider reach. The campaign will use gaming elements to engage the player in the narrative that we discuss in Half the Sky. The game allows you to play the person you are learning about. There is a game done by MTV called Darfur Is Dying about a woman who was escaping the Janjaweed with her two girls. In three months the game reached 1 million players. Games have a great reach. To engage you, games give you a bit of a challenge, and if you meet that challenge you go to the next level, and you feel a little bit more of an investment. Also, online games give you a context for converting into action; within the online environment it is easy to click to join a group, tell people, donate, and more. Our game is run by Games for Change, a nonprofit that focuses on developing games with a social impact. This campaign will use those gaming techniques to involve people more in social causes.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Nje (last edited Mar 26, 2011 03:41AM) (new)

Nje I was watching Oprah the other day when this nice couple talked about their work and the book. It really moved me to be reminded about women issues. I would like to support this good course. I plan on getting the book

message 2: by Jake (new)

Jake William I need Help with Essay can someone tell me is it true the Bible was written over an era of Fourteen hundred to eighteen hundred years by more than forty different writers. The Bible is a compilation of Sixty six different books, divided into two main divisions the New Testament and the Old Testament.

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