by Erin DeJesus
In our Apr/May "Men We Love" issue, we saluted five men who have joined the front lines in the fight for women's rights. Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times Op-ed columnist and author — along with his wife Sheryl WuDunn — of the fantastic book Half the Sky: From Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide — made our list for his efforts to make empowering women front-page news. We have the rest of our interview with him here:
You mentioned in the Times once that stories about women are often marginalized by journalists; it's a "soft issue." What do you think that is?
Traditionally, both journalists and the people that they tended to cover were men, and so women's issues just tended to be not the first thing that came to mind either to reporters or to those they were covering. So I think that we in the newsmedia tended to put aside issues of women's rights as worthy concern that is still kind of peripheral. And even human rights organizations, until about a decade ago, tended to do that as well. They focused on individuals who were dissidents and arrested by their governments and had terrible things happen to them, while ignoring the vastly greater numbers of people who've had terrible things happening to them in the home because of their gender.
Could it be, too, that this is something that the general public just doesn't want to hear about or acknowledge is still happening?
I don't know that it's so much that as a couple of other things. One is that, traditionally, what we in the news business have been very good at is covering what happened yesterday, and traditionally what we've been weakest at is covering what happens everyday. And the kinds of things that happen to women are those that happen everyday. Things like maternal mortality, or human trafficking, or domestic violence, or female genital cutting — issues that are never announced at a news conference, are never part of a policy adapted by a prime minister or a president. Those are just the things that we've been really weak at covering.
I'm going bring up something that I know you're not going to like: You say you flinch at being called an "advocacy journalist." Why is that? Do you think that there's a conflict of interest between journalism and advocacy?
I came into journalism both with an idea that this was a way to make a diference, to make a better world, yet also with a very strong commitment to the ideas of objectivity and neutrality that are deeply engrained in most journalists. And there's clearly a tension there between those two goals. But I think that sometimes there's a feeling that an advocacy journalist is somebody who starts out with a conclusion and tends to find the evidence to buttresses it.
And that is very much not what I want to do. I want to advocate but very much based on a really empirical assessment of what's going on. And the notion of advocacy journalist connotes somebody who's maybe more in the heating business than the lighting business.
You were initially inspired to write Half the Sky with your wife, Sheryl, after a revelation you had in China... about the 100 million missing women.
There were a couple of things going on. One was that we covered the Tiananmen Square massacre and it was just a milestone in our careers. I saw people massacred there; I had friends who were imprisoned. We won a Pulitzer for it and we were on the front page day in, day out for more than a month.
Then about a year later, we just came across a study that showed that every year in China, incomprably more — 39,000 — baby girls were being killed each year precisely because they were girls. And we never had even one column inch of coverage. And it made us wonder about our journalistic priorities, about what merited a story, that maybe 400 people being killed on Tiennaman Square had been worthy of tens of thousands of column inches, and meanwhile tens of thousands of baby girls being killed didn't merit one. It made us wonder about the merits of what constituted news. And as we looked a little more into the issue and realized indeed that globally, there are somewhere around 100 million women missing, the more that one looked at gender, the more it was clear that this was really the dominant human rights issue of the time, moreso than what governments were doing to dissidents.
Around that time, I also became interested in trafficking in Cambodia and was just blown away by seeing young girls kidnapped and locked up, pending the sale of their virginity to customers, and realizing that they were every bit like 19th century slaves, only they were all going to be dead of AIDS by their 20s. It really took me aback that this was happening here and now.
And I think the final part of the equation was that I was deeply interested in global poverty and what strategies would be effective in combating it, and Asia had been a great success at chipping away at poverty — and it was increasingly evident that the strategy was to educate and empower women and girls and bring them into the formal economy. It was those things coming together that I think made us focus on the role of women in the developing world.
Tell me about the process of compiling the book. Obviously, you've been writing op-eds about women for years, so how did you sit and down and decide what to include?
I look for issues that are big and important and also where I feel my column can help make a difference. And I think part of it is to think of the column as a big spotlight. If you shine it on something that is already illuminated, you tend to make less difference; in contract, it's most effective when you shine it on something that is in the dark, that people don't really know about, but once they see it, they'll spill their coffee on their paper over breakfast. Then it will have some kind of impact that way. That's what I'm really aiming to do — is to make people spill their coffee. And really aroused and get angry, or inspired, or whatever it may be, but to hopefully do something to take some action.
Where you really can without doubt have an impact is to not so much persuade people as to call their attention to an issue and put it on the agenda. And that really is a powerful tool that we carry, and so I've tried to apply it to Durfur, to human trafficking, to Congo, to various human rights issues, and more broadly, with Half the Sky, to issues of women's rights and empowerment around the world.
Do think that putting issues on the agenda here in the West is really enough? How do you get through to people who simply don't want to consider women's issues as human rights issues?
It's not enough to get it on the agenda here, but it's usually a starting point. There usually are very few people on these kinds of issues who take a counterposition. There's nobody who is making a cohesive argument in favor of genocide or arguing that sex trafficking is a good thing. So it tends to be enough to galvanize a certain number of people to take action and raise the costs of these kinds of behavior, and I think that is something that, to some degree, one can do. I don't think we're going to end all killings in Sudan or end all human trafficking, but I think what we really can do is change the incentive structure to make it harder and less profitable for those people who are engaged in it, and that really works.
There's one brothel in Cambodia that I've visited many times over the years; I know the brothel owner quite well at this point. And she has just gone out of the brothel business and turned her brothel into a grocery story because she found — really because of American pressure — there was some risk that she might actually be arrested for trafficking, and beyond that the police were, they weren't closing down her brothel, but they were demanding bribes all the time. It just eroded her business model. And it became more profitable to deal in candy bars and loaves of bread than in kidnapped girls. And I think that's kind of a hopeful sign that we can really change... not reform anybody, but change their incentives.
In regards to the women's issues that you're writing about, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you think change is coming?
Yes, I really do. And I think the argument that is most effective is not the rights-based one, 'This is a bad thing,' but I think it's a practical and economic argument that the greatest resource that repressive countries have is the female half of their population. And they're not going to overcome poverty or become stronger than more important countries if they try to proceed with one hand tied behind their back.
For more about Half the Sky, visit www.halftheskymovement.org, and follow Kristof's blog at kristof.blogs.nytimes.com.
Image courtesy of NYTimes.com