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On the Emancipation of Women


January 10, 2010

Just as the eighteen hundreds were ripe for the abolition of slavery, this century will bring forces to bear on freeing women from violence, from slavery, from oppression, argues Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky.

wudunn300.jpgThe statistics that measure instances of violence against women worldwide are astounding both for their magnitude and for the diversity of the abuses they catalog. Last week, in a speech commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quoted these: Seventy million women and girls worldwide have been subjected to female genital cutting. Every minute, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. And for every woman who dies, another twenty suffer from injury, infection, or disease.

The State Department has estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 people, 80 percent of whom are women and girls, are trafficked across international borders every year. Virtually every two hours in India, a bride burning—punishment for an insufficient dowry or simply a means of eliminating a hindrance to a remarriage—takes place. And in South and Southeast Asia women are in danger of having acid thrown in their faces, revenge for having rebuffed sexual advances or simply as a form of domestic violence, which disfigures and often blinds them. And on and on and on. But stories of this nature rarely show up on the front page of the paper, or make it onto the evening news, or even get covered online. After all, it isn’t news if it happens all the time.

This phenomenon dawned on New York Times reporters Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof not long after they covered the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In the wake of their reporting, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize, the couple came across a statistic that held that, in China, thirty-nine thousand baby girls die every year from neglect. Or more specifically, from the decision by parents to forgo medical attention, a decision rarely made for baby boys, boys being so much more valuable. Boil that number down and, at the time, as many infant girls were dying every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square. But while the world media buzzed on for months, years, about the student deaths, barely a word was said about the infant girls.

“We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day,” Kristof and WuDunn write. “But we slip at covering events that happen every day.”

That this fact was so little known moved the couple to dig more deeply into the human rights abuses inflicted against women elsewhere in the world. Their much celebrated book, Half the Sky, is the culmination of nearly twenty years of this reportage.

Employing a unique brand of activist journalism—in an early chapter, Kristof and WuDunn describe the results of their purchase of the freedom of two sex slaves—the couple anchors each chapter with a real woman. Her story is unflinchingly dictated, and her photograph (the majority of these taken by Kristof himself) shown, thereby effectively putting a face to every abuse. While sobering, and often painful, the book brims with a feeling of empowerment. Each story being one of triumph over tragedy, of women, with the help of NGOs, micro-financiers, education, or simply one another, learning to make change in their own worlds.

But for Kristof and WuDunn, the time for an even broader change has come. The brutality imposed upon women and girls around the world is, in Kristof and WuDunn’s words, one of the paramount human rights problems of this century. They argue that just as the stage was set for the abolition of slavery in the seventeen eighties, so too is it now set for the global emancipation of women.

The problem is that the infringements are so diverse, running from systemic (maternal mortality) to endemic (female genital mutilation) to economic (sex slavery), each calling for its own approach, and not always clearly. But WuDunn and Kristof argue that the first step is raising awareness, ultimately the impetus for the writing of Half the Sky, the title of which comes from a Chinese proverb that says: Women hold up half the sky. Or the world could not go on without them.

I spoke with Sheryl WuDunn by phone on a winter afternoon.

—Katherine Dykstra for Guernica

Guernica: Throughout Half the Sky, you make a direct correlation between sex slavery, happening all over the world today, and the slavery of Africans in the seventeen eighties. When did you realize there were parallels between the two?

Sheryl WuDunn: We started looking at the more formal slavery movement, and that was when we started seeing the way that the anti-slavery movement [in the seventeen eighties] developed and therefore left some lessons for how one can turn around the slavery challenge that’s facing us today. And that lesson is, really, that one needs, first of all, to see what the truth is, what the facts are. That’s what William Wilberforce [a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade] did. He was scrupulous about the facts. He tried not to exaggerate. That’s something, as journalists, we’ve always been very careful about.

And second, you really need to get people to care. That’s what [Wilberforce] did. It wasn’t as though he was just trying to focus on policymakers. He was telling everyone he could. He was trying to mobilize the masses because they were the ones who would say, the average person in the UK would say, “This is…amazing. We won’t stand for this.” And they actually accepted a negative percentage of growth because of it—by eradicating the slave trade, they were taking away a few points of GDP. That’s because there was a groundswell of opinion that led them to do that.

If the demographers say sixty million to 100 million women and girls are missing, we focus on the sixty million. We want to be very careful about the facts. The sad thing is that you don’t need to exaggerate.

In the same way right now, in our time, we really think we need a groundswell of opinion to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire. We can’t think that now that we have Secretary Clinton in her position she’s going to bring about change—it’s just not enough.

Guernica: In the book, you say that [Wilberforce] used “the meticulously-amassed evidence for barbarity in order to change opinion.” You do something similar.

Sheryl WuDunn: We’re trying to be scrupulous about the facts. Absolutely.

Guernica: And trying to show… I mean, a lot of it is so hard to read.

Sheryl WuDunn: A lot of it is just showing what’s happened, exposing the reality. Being scrupulous about what they’re reporting. If there was a doubt about how many slaves were on that boat—if it could have been 600 to 1,800—they used the 600. If the demographers say sixty million to 100 million women and girls are missing, we focus on the sixty million. We want to be very careful about the facts. The sad thing is that you don’t need to exaggerate.

Guernica: Do you think that Americans today are as culpable regarding the enslavement of women? Or, better, why is it the responsibility of the West to take up this cause?

Sheryl WuDunn: I don’t think we’re in the slave trade the way the British were and the U.S. were a party to it back in the days of slavery. But we certainly know it exists, and the profit is there; there’s trafficking into the U.S. as well; it’s all related to the economics of demand. But we don’t argue that the western men go to Cambodia and that’s why there’s a slave trade. That’s not what we’re saying. But there’s indirect culpability because some of the trafficking does come to the U.S. There’s actually trafficking through the Mexican border.

But more so that we, really, as human beings, as people, we stand for democracy and for human rights around the world; that’s what the U.S. preaches. That’s why people get so angry at Obama for not criticizing China for its human rights abuses, and it’s not nearly as bad as some of the others we’re writing about. We suffer criticism for implementing a double standard when we neglect what is so clearly the abuse of women and girls, but because it’s women and girls, it’s not something people write about or talk about. Why isn’t Obama going to China and saying, “There are X million missing girls in China. They don’t have human rights”—I mean, we don’t even see that as an issue! It’s more the dissidents, a few hundred dissidents, when there’s millions of missing baby girls and women. And in Africa there’s term mortality. So it is a moral obligation for Americans to really try and address this issue around the world.

Guernica: What, then, in your mind is the biggest barrier to getting people on board with this moral obligation?

Sheryl WuDunn: I first think that people have to care. I think that just a tiny fraction of people in this country know about [the enslavement of women]. I think the voice is louder than it was before, but if you look at the 300-plus million people in this country, how many people really know about this issue? A tiny amount. So you can’t really bring about a broad-base change unless millions of people know about this. So that’s what the stumbling block is, and I know that it’s important to really send money abroad and help those people too, but I think people underestimate the power of opinion and that you really need to focus on spreading the word and making people aware of it. So that change can be brought about. People underestimate how important it is to create a groundswell of opinion.

Guernica: In the book you say that it’s the political will that’s lacking.

Sheryl WuDunn: Right. And [political will] starts to come about when people start to care and then their politicians think, “Oh my goodness. This is what you care about.” If you look back in World War I, there were more American women who died during World War I than men died. One of the driving forces for change in that is that women got the vote and the politicians started realizing—or sensing—that [women] cared about access to health care. So, it was when women got the vote, when they could actually voice their opinion, not that they actually had this overt campaign to end infant mortality. They didn’t think of it that way, but they got better health care. You know the Waldorf Astoria? Around World War I, that was a fistula hospital… But now it’s the Waldorf Astoria because they didn’t need it any longer since they eradicated the problem.

Guernica: Where, then, does awareness need to be raised? In the West?

Sheryl WuDunn: In the West. That’s where we can help. I can’t go to Pakistan and say… [laughs] I have no influence there. That’s why we’re focusing on [the West]. At least here, in the West, we think a lot can be done here.

Guernica: When it comes to sex slavery, you advocate for what you call a big stick approach. But later, when you’re talking about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), you support a more delicate approach, an infiltration of culture. Can you identify the differences between these two problems?

Sheryl WuDunn: You really need to look at the particular issue and figure out what is important. So with prostitution or with the brothels, we think the stick works better than the carrot, and we have examples in the book that show why we think that. We just have to make it unprofitable or make it not worth it for the brothel owner or the john.

My grandmother’s feet were bound in China, and there were people here in the U.S. who said, “This is horrific.” And there were people in China who said, “This is horrific.” I am so glad they said it was horrific. If they’d said, “Oh no we can’t interfere in anyone’s culture,” then my mother’s feet would have been bound, then my feet would have been bound.

Guernica: So does it come down to the fact that there’s money involved in sex slavery and in FGM there’s not?

Sheryl WuDunn: I haven’t thought of it that way. Perhaps it might, but just the fact that you have to give them disincentives, because it is an economic situation there, so you have to give them a disincentive for it. Whether it’s putting them in jail, or whether it’s fining them a huge amount to make it unprofitable, you just need the stick approach. Whereas with general cutting, that’s a culture, a cultural practice, and you just need to understand when you go in to bring about cultural change, you really need to figure out what’s driving that change, what’s driving that perspective.

Guernica: How do you go over and change perceptions surrounding cultural practices that have been going on for generations, and should you?

Sheryl WuDunn: We have examples of how NGOs are bringing about change both in the West and in those countries. They’re partnering with local change-makers. There are change-makers in these other countries. It’s not as though no one knows about these issues. I mean, it happens and the people are aware of it—they just don’t know how to change it and so those local change agents need resources and expertise from the West and that’s what we can give them.

Guernica: There’s a lot of skepticism, surrounding what some call cultural imperialism.

Sheryl WuDunn: This is not what we argue. [Our argument] touches on the fear of imperialism, but we would never say… Americans should tell you “don’t do this.” No. What we’re arguing is we think Americans can partner with local organizations to bring about change and to offer, mainly, assistance. We would not be the leaders in bringing about the change, but we would work with [the locals] and help, be a resource—you know, financial resources, expertise, medical expertise. Or training, education resources. Those are the ways that we can help. But ultimately, you have to work with the local agents because you can’t get anything done without them. So that’s what we would argue. As for the cultural imperialism, of course the host country is always going to say that. But I think that’s really not the right way to frame it. I think when you see outrage, it’s outrage. Period.

For instance, my grandmother’s feet were bound in China, and there were people here in the U.S. who said, “This is horrific.” And there were people in China who said, “This is horrific.” I am so glad they said it was horrific. If they’d said, “Oh no we can’t interfere in anyone’s culture,” then my mother’s feet would have been bound, then my feet would have been bound.

Guernica: There’s a part in the book where Nicholas is talking to a group of female doctors from Saudi Arabia about women’s rights, and they essentially say to him, “We don’t want you fighting for us, we don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us.” What’s your answer to a statement like that?

Sheryl WuDunn: That’s what their perception of the West is, but that’s also not necessarily correct either. A lot of it has to be changed. In China, for centuries they thought it was great to have their feet bound. So we shouldn’t be put off just because people say, “Don’t feel sorry for us.” You just have to go about it in a different way and ally with people who understand that change has to be brought about and to help them bring about that change. You obviously don’t want to just beat your head against a wall—there are people who are going to resist you. Then you just find another route. And you don’t always have to be confrontational about it. You can just go around and work with people who do know how to navigate. One has to be very delicate about it, but not give up.

Guernica: You allow, in the book, that sometimes the best of intentions do go awry and that aid doesn’t always work. Do you think that some of the impressions, like the ones of those Saudi Arabian doctors, are the result of aid operations that aren’t working?

Sheryl WuDunn: Nothing’s perfect, so maybe sometimes America views the public as almighty too often. And it is hard to get aid done perfectly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In other words, we should try to learn from mistakes and make it better. It does take time, and it is hard when you’re dealing with cultural change. That’s always very sticky and very slow. But I still think it’s worth changing. I’m also very encouraged because, when you look at the China situation, they actually basically ended foot binding in one generation, and it’s remarkable.

We think we are close to a tipping point; the majority of people in development acknowledging that women and girls are a key force in trying to end poverty and fight terrorism.

Guernica: On the ground level, how did that work?

Sheryl WuDunn: It was a women’s movement in China. It was to eradicate foot binding. It was a movement in China to do that, and people had never thought about it… They’d just done it for years—for centuries, without even thinking. But then finally, the women’s movement in China just said, “This is ridiculous.” They just basically educated people. That’s what it was—education. Just an educational campaign about something. With genital cutting, it just takes education to change people’s views. It’s just something that’s not necessary.

Guernica: You mentioned briefly earlier the idea that emancipation of women can be correlated with economic growth. Do you think there is an awareness of this fact in developing countries around the world? Do you think leaders get this?

Sheryl WuDunn: Well, I think China got it. In a big way. And I think a lot of the East Asian countries and some of the, you know, the Philippines and Thailand, they all get it. Because all their factories have women in them. Bangladesh gets it. Pakistan does not. I mean Bangladesh got this decades ago, which is so interesting cause it was once part of Pakistan. So here you have an example of a culture, two very similar cultures, one changed and the other did not.

Guernica: Is that a top down thing?

Sheryl WuDunn: They did because, first of all, they educated everybody. They realized education was important, and they cared about health care. Everyone had to have access to health care. Their maternal mortality rate is much lower than similar cultures. Pakistan’s statistics are terrible; Bangladesh is, of course, smaller but a very similar culture. So for everyone that says you can’t change culture, well look, this is a perfect example. [In the] nineteen seventies [Pakistan and Bangladesh] were the same culture. I mean there was a slight difference because Bangladesh has an intellectual tradition and a few other differences. But they were basically the same country. [Bangladesh] decided to educate girls and give access to health care, and it’s night and day. The way they have developed, it’s night and day. There are more girls in high school in Bangladesh than boys. They have one of the most prominent women’s universities that other women in Southeast Asia go to. I mean, it’s just funny; their health statistics on women are much better than in Pakistan, and you’ve got two of the largest micro-lending institutions, Grameen Bank and BRAC, the Nobel Prize winner coming from Bangladesh. What does Pakistan have?

Guernica: In the book, you say that even as globalization seems to worsen the situation for some women, the rise of micro-finance and social entrepreneurs is really helping. To what do you attribute their ascent?

Sheryl WuDunn: There are a lot of NGOs that have been working for years toward this development, and they are finally getting traction. Which is why we think we are close to a tipping point, the majority of people in development acknowledging that women and girls are a key force in trying to end poverty and fight terrorism…

Guernica: What, in your mind, is contributing to reaching the tipping point?

Sheryl WuDunn: In the political sphere, you’ve got that new position in the State Department [Ambassador for Women’s Affairs], you’ve got Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, she’s appointed Elizabeth Bagley to work on public and private partnerships that will focus on a wide variety of things including bringing about change in the developing world. You’ve got Valerie Jarrett who is heading the Council for Women and Girls.

And in the corporate sphere, you’ve got companies like Goldman Sachs who focus on women and girls. You’ve got Exxon Mobil also donating millions of dollars to—I don’t know what the specific amount is, but lots of money. And WalMart is also taking on women and girls…

And then in the civilian sphere, you’ve got so many more NGOs [turning to] women and girls as a focus of how to bring about change and development. I just can’t tell you how many come up…

And then you’ve got people going to work at NGOs or actually going overseas to try and work on development with these girls, universities are encouraging that, there are overseas programs—so, in just so many spheres of life—political, civilian, there are so many paths that people are taking toward these things.

I really think that the time is right for change. Just like the civil rights movement, there is a time for change. If it works, then things are pushed over and there is change, and so you don’t want to lose the moment.

To contact Guernica or Sheryl WuDunn, please write here.

Photo by Michael Lionstar.

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4 comments for On the Emancipation of Women

  1. Comment by Francesco Sinibaldi on January 20, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Like a voice in the morning.

    The silent
    and beautiful
    signal hidden
    alone in the
    youth of a
    morning calls
    me, near the
    eternity: it’s
    the delicate leaf
    of a loving
    profile.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  2. Comment by margaret flanagan on March 21, 2010 at 10:47 am

    This article is has forced me to seek out the book and buy one for my each of my grown children — Please keep at this .

  3. Comment by autom on May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Very nice sentiments indeed. Women in modern countries are already in much better position. Hopefully the position will dramatically improve elsewhere.

  4. Comment by Denise Austin on July 8, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Where does one begin to draw the line between culture and cruelty? Is there some universal standard of morality? In ancient Rome, the live of common people were cheap and could be bought for a coin. Does that make it an “evil” society? How do we respect tradition yet still demand a specific standard of treatment?

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