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Nicholas D. Kristof Delivers Keynote at PLA 2010

“Women hold up half the sky.” – Chinese proverb.

Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times columnist and co-author with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, was the opening keynote speaker for the Public Library Association’s (PLA) 2010 conference. He spoke on what he called the greatest moral challenge of the twenty-first century: gender inequity. Just as slavery was the great moral challenge of the 19th century and totalitarianism was that of the 20th, he said that the oppression of women and girls is now the most pressing moral issue facing the world.

Illustrating his talk with many examples witnessed during extensive world travel as a reporter and author, Kristof says that in much of the world,  women and girls are an undervalued resource. When there isn’t enough food, the boys get fed, and the girls are left to starve. When sick, boys get medical care, girls don’t. More girls have been discriminated against to death in the last decade than have died in all the genocides of the 20th century. However, as Kristof sees it, women aren’t the problem, they’re the solution.

He said that investing in girls’ education has transformative power. It creates a “virtuous cycle” wherein the investment yields an educated class of skilled, employable women who can then benefit their localities by bringing in money from employment, and by starting new businesses. This new wealth then makes it more likely that future generations of young girls will have access to education.

He pointed out that the greatest untapped source of income in the third world is women, and not only as a result of their earning potential. One cause of poverty, he said, is bad spending decisions — disproportionatly made by men. In many poor countries, only 2% of income is spent on children’s education while 20% is spent on a combination of alchohol, tobacco, prostitution, sugary drinks and other forms of “fast living.” Give control of the family budget to women, studies show, and this problem is greatly reduced.

Kristof offered a four-point agenda to address this problem:
1 – Eliminate human trafficking. In much of the world young girls are forced into prostitution against their will, or sold into it by their parents. It is often just another form of slavery. In Cambodia, after writing a story about them for the New York Times, Kristof had to buy two girls (14 and 15 years old) in order to free them from sexual slavery. He felt he had a responsibility to do this because his reporting on them would be exploitative if he didn’t do something to help them.
2 – Address maternal health and mortatlity. A half-million women die in childbirth every year unnecessarily. And, for every one that dies, 20 are injured. We know how to prevent these deaths.
3 – Microfiinance and business education give women a chance to address their economic situations directly.
4 – Education. He illustrated this point with a story about a young girl from Uganda whose parents could not afford to send her to school until they were able to buy a goat and earn some extra money selling its milk. She started school at nine years old–three years behind her classmates–yet excelled, and recently graduated from Connecticut College. (She is the subject of the children’s book Beatrice’s Goat.) Upon graduating she said, “I’m the luckiest girl in the world, and all because of a goat.”

Further, Kristof said, we’re learning that within these categories, some kinds of aid works better than others. Health, education, empowerment (microfinance), water. And, within these, we’re also finding that some things help more than others. For instance, addressing some primary and easily fixable health problems allows children to stay in school on a more regular basis greatly increasing their success rate.

In conclusion, Kristof advised against becoming depressed, skeptical or jaded about the “big” international problems. He suggested viewing our efforts in the same way the boy who threw a starfish back into the sea viewed his. While acknowledging that he couldn’t solve the problem of beached starfish everywhere, he knew that he sure could make a difference for the ones he threw back.

“Help others, help yourself,” Kristof said. “What makes us happy is connecting to a cause larger than ourselves. It gives us a new perspective.” To illustrate, he closed with the story of a young American woman aid worker in Darfur, who while confronted everyday with atrocities and misery, was able to retain her personal equilibrium. However, upon returning home, she brook down emotionally when she saw the bird feeder in her grandmother’s back yard. She said that she suddenly realized her personal good fortune to be born in a country of such great wealth that we not only have enough to feed ourselves, but also to make sure wild birds don’t go hungry in winter.

“We’ve won the lottery of life,” Krstoff said, “Now, how do we discharge that responsibility.”

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