Women are the solution, not the problem

Tonight I met one of my heroes: NY Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof. I heard him address an alumni group about his work and his new book, Half the Sky. Other than my family and our president, there’s probably no one I’ve blogged about more. I have immense respect for how eloquently he tells the stories of people who are unfairly treated, and for how deeply he cares about what happens to them.

Here’s a quiz based on what I learned this evening:

  1. Which do you think there are more of in the world: males or females?
  2. If the 19th century was defined by slavery, and the 20th by totalitarianism, what is likely to define the 21st century?
  3. True or false: As many American women died in childbirth during World War I as men died on the battlefield.
  4. A female sex slave in Cambodia can be purchased for several hundred dollars. Approximately how much in today’s dollars would a 19th century American slave be worth?
  5. Which of the following concerns Kristof the least when he visits an African warlord: car accident, banditry, or dying at the hand of the warlord?
  6. In some developing countries, families spend 2% of their income on education. What do they often spend 20% on?


  1. Males. Even though statistically there should be more females, so many females are aborted and such a low priority is placed on the health of women that in many parts of the world, boys outnumber girls by an outsize margin.
  2. Gender inequity. It’s a huge problem in much of the world, and holds many societies back. Also, see question 1.
  3. True. American maternal mortality improved when women got the right to vote, and politicians thought the electorate demanded adequate medical care.
  4. $40,000. As poorly as American slaves were treated, their masters had more of a financial interest in keeping them healthy and productive. A female sex slave is worth so little that if she causes problems, she’s expendable. In some instances, her fellow slaves are made to beat her to death if she’s a troublemaker.
  5. Dying at the hand of the warlord. Caveat: that holds true when he’s in the territory of the warlord. The warlord doesn’t want to be known for being responsible for killing an American journalist. I agree about the car accidents; one of my fellow writers from The Stanford Daily recently died in a car accident in Africa:(
  6. Tobacco, alcohol, prostitution and elaborate celebrations. Kristof argued that this is why women should be empowered to make more financial decisions. He said he’s seen families whose children have died of malaria for lack of a $5 net, and yet the father spends $1.50 on alcohol 3x a week.

Kristof doesn’t want to just make people feel sorry for the people he writes about: he wants to spur them to action. Here were some areas where he said improvement would make a drastic different not only in the lives of the women they affect, but would have a ripple effect in helping the societies in which they live:

  • End sexual slavery. Nearly 1 million women and girls a year are trafficked as sex slaves, and at least one reputable group estimates that there are 27 million people in bondage worldwide at this time.
  • Improve female education. He said that when he’s talking to leaders of poor nations, he makes more headway on this issue by explaining that females are their country’s biggest untapped resource than by appealing to moral arguments.
  • Improve maternal health. Today, a woman in Niger has a 1 in 7 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. Women in many other countries don’t fare much better. A poor woman in a rural setting has two strikes against her, but there are techniques and practices which could be used to serve even these women better.
  • Empower women financially. Micro-loans have been particularly successful in allowing women to not only provide for their family’s livelihood and education, but it’s allowed them to have more of a say in how the family money is spent.

If I were a journalist, I’d want to be like Kristof. But I’ve chosen a path where I can be around my family more, so I try to do my part by volunteering, creating websites for non-profits, and blogging.

Kristof was correct when he said that what makes us happiest is when we help others. It’s immensely satisfying to have a positive impact on the world. And Kristof definitely does.

If you’re interested in hearing Nicholas Kristof speak, he’ll be in Southern California for a bit longer. Here’s his schedule of events.

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4 Responses to “Women are the solution, not the problem”

  1. monica #

    how timely since today is the California Governors Womens Conference in Long Beach. it is live streaming at californiawomen.org. Kristof is one of the speakers, along with Madeleine Albright, Richard Branson, Caroline Kennedy, and many others.

    10/27/2009 at 8:09 am
  2. Irene #

    Kathy –

    Please don’t forget the other half of the authors of this book. This book was written by both Kristof AND his wife, Sheryl Wudunn.



    10/27/2009 at 3:11 pm
  3. Thanks so much for your notes and the link to Kristof’s website. Its message is a great call to action: \The best way to fight poverty and extremism is to educate women and girls.\

    11/02/2009 at 3:33 pm


  1. Defining Progress for Women | Sunroom Desk - 11/03/2009

    […] blogger KChristieH published her notes from Nicolas Kristof’s talk on Half the Sky. His message: The best way to fight poverty and extremism is to educate and empower […]

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