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The "Moral Challenge of the Century": Sheryl WuDunn Talks About "Half the Sky"

''Half The Sky'' Book Party Sponsored by Reader's Digest and C.A.R.E.
I've written here before about the excellent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by wife-and-husband duo Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof. If you haven't read the book, I'll just say: read it. Now. I promise it will be one of the most eye-opening books you will ever read.

As a huge fan of the book, I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Sheryl when she spoke last month at Loyola University Chicago's Lakeshore campus. The fact that I interviewed her in the building adjacent to my freshman year college dorm--where I first decided to study political science and women's studies alongside journalism--was just a coincidence, but a wonderful "full circle" moment nonetheless. 
Sheryl's speech, which covered topics and stories from the book, was attended by a broad mix of young students and adult women, with a few good men sprinkled in the mix. Sheryl is a natural speaker--she walked back and forth across the stage, speaking unscripted and without notes. Though she held the audience's rapt attention for the entire duration, perhaps one of the most eye opening facts was when she asked us a simple question: "Are there more women or men in the world?" Many thought the correct answer was "women"--and surely, here in the U.S., as well as the rest of the developed world, that's the case. But worldwide, women are outnumbered by men, a result of the great oppression, abuse and discrimination that women and girls suffer at every turn of their life in many areas of the world. There's no way I could adequately do these facts and figures justice here, so I'll just repeat: go read Half the Sky.

Prior to the speech, I was lucky enough to sit down with Sheryl and discuss further in-depth the issues found in the book. As a journalist, it's always a little nerve-wracking interviewing another journalist: they know all the tricks, after all. And certainly, Sheryl was polished, but I also found her open, passionate, and eager to speak about everything from writing the book with husband Nicholas Kristof and keeping professional objectivity in extreme circumstances to whether or not she thinks advancing the education and empowerment of women worldwide is a feminist issue. 

How did the process of writing and researching this book change you and your outlook?
The book has been a long time in the making. It probably started when we were in China and I started looking into the whole issue of the abduction of women. Men used to kidnap women and sell them as brides. It was horrifying to me that that went on.

We also discovered that the sonogram was making its way throughout the entire country and  that's when we stumbled on this idea that there were many, many missing baby girls. We thought it was very particular to China. Over the years, we discovered it wasn't. As we were trying to pull threads together, I think the challenge really was, 'Is this something that is just prevalent worldwide, that is, a discrimination of services in different ways?' That's when we started really thinking the treatment of women in many so much like the treatment of slaves.

And that's when we started drawing threads and putting it together, as you see with Half the Sky. In terms of the writing, this is our third book together [with husband Nicholas Kristof] so it's not a new thing for us. When you've been in journalism, as you know, you get used to the idea of writing and editing, it sort of melds together. We actually, in our previous two books, alternated chapters, so that was a little bit different (this time).

While covering these stories, you and Nicholas often got very personally involved, going so far as  giving blood to dying women, buying girls out of slavery and paying for operations. As a journalist, frankly, do you just abandon any hope of  keeping yourself objectively out of the story in situations like this?
Right. I think there's different types of journalists. When we were actually reporters on the news side, both of us, we were very mindful of being objective and balanced and not getting involved. Then I left the newsroom. Nick left the newsroom as well, but he ended up going back to be a columnist (for the New York Times) where you actually have to take a stance. It really took him awhile to really feel comfortable doing that. For me, when I left the newsroom, I thought 'Well, I'm just leaving it. That's it.' And then to write a book like this, where you really have to take a stand, I thought, 'I'm not really a journalist anymore, so it's okay to take a stand.' We certainly talked about it and thrashed out all the different issues and realized with something like this, you almost seem inhuman if you don't take a stand. We thought, no one else is doing it. If no one else does, no one's ever going to speak up for it. So we really do have to put a stake in the ground.

Were there any instances where you had to remove yourself and realize you, as one person, can't take on every person, every problem?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We basically have to say that. We're not an NGO. The people who are out in the field doing work are far more daring and bold than we are because aid workers stay there and they're living there for a period of time. We're the observers, the voice, the writer. We can actually do advocacy. We're good at explaining things, carrying a story and making it available so other people see how important it is.  That's what our role is.

Do you think of yourself as a journalist, as an activist, or as something in-between?
You know, it's funny. I don't think of myself as an activist. I think the word 'activist' has the connotation of marching on the streets and I haven't done any of that (laughs). I do think that this is journalism because what we did try to do--even though, as you raised earlier, we had to make a distinction--at the same time, we also had to be very careful because (with) advocacy, people think of people who exaggerate. We were so scrupulous not to exaggerate. We've always been very careful about the facts, even changing editions when we find out what the new revelations or new group numbers are. So, I don't know where that fits in. I don't really know. Advocacy, people think of that as you're always one-sided because you're taking a stand. We're taking a stance, but I don't think we're really one-sided in the sense that we're blind to the other side. I think we're really trying to reveal something that people aren't as aware of.

And you're certainly advancing this message, but you do mention in the book that there are groups and studies from the '90s and even from the '70s about empowering and educating women to improve the economy. Why do you think it's taken so long for this idea to take hold in people's minds?
People who work in development have been aware of this for a long time. We certainly are latecomers to that, as you say, the '70s, '80s, '90s. Even Larry Summers, when he was chief economist for the World Bank, said that girls' education may well be the best return on investment. So, I mean, the World Bank was right! But what we are really trying to do is move it from the narrow area of development into the mainstream. That's what we think our role can be, because we can tell a story in a very careful way...but tell it in a way so that people will listen. That's what we hope we can do.

Do you think part of the problem is that the issues, especially when addressing  maternal mortality, are so often marginalized as a 'women's issue'? When I went to purchase Half the Sky, it was hidden in the gender studies corner of the bookstore and you think, 'Why is it in gender studies?'

I agree with you. That's what we're trying to get out of. It's really hard. We do find ourselves trying to beat down these walls. It isn't gender studies. It shouldn't be. This has to be an issue that men also care about because it's a social problem. We can't make changes without men. And so we also want to reach men, because men can help explain issues to men.

At the same time, do you think this is a feminist message?
I think feminists can agree with us and help us move this along, too. But I don't want it to be confined to just a feminist (issue) because we're not going to reach the mainstream if it's considered a feminist issue. It has to be a social issue. That's why we think it's a moral challenge for the century for men and women as well.

How do you feel about the response that the book has garnered thus far?
We feel totally lucky. We feel delighted that people are caring about this issue. We hope that people will care more about the issue and help do something about it.

Have you seen that energy and awareness turning into action? How do you make that next step if you read this and want to do more than 'be aware'?
We kind of wrote it as a do-it-yourself foreign aide toolkit. In the back, there's steps to do and there's the names of NGOs. We want people to take it into their own hands and do something about it. We don't have all the answers, by any means. People can be so creative, and that's what it takes. A million different lights, a hundred blooming flowers, because so many people have their ways of expressing how they can help.

There is a movement, in fact, even at the state department. This is something Secretary Clinton cares about and I know she's trying to move things along as well. Melanne Verveer, who's the new United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues is really working full time on it. So there are the beginnings of things. I hope that at the government level, it will be sustained, because they are a pillar. In the corporate world, there's so many companies that are interested in this and thinking about how to build their corporate social responsibility programs around this. That's really encouraging. And in the civilian sphere, a lot of people are interested in this issue. We're hoping that in all these different major spheres there will be more momentum.

So it's not necessarily government versus grassroots as far as who can make an impact.
Oh, you need every single sphere. Moving mountains is not easy. You really need it in all spheres. It can't just be grassroots. It can't just be government. People think, 'Oh. Let's just let the government do this.' No! It can't be just the government. It has to be you talking to your congressional representative. If they don't hear from their constituents, they're not going to know that anyone cares. If they start hearing from their constituents that they care, they realize they've to vote the right way or do something about it.

How was it a challenge for you in terms of finding accurate statistics in areas where people probably aren't keeping very accurate numbers?
That's a real issue. I don't want to just label 'activists.' There are some really good people that care about being careful as well. Even in the field of development, it is known that some of the early research was not at the level of purity (as) in the academic world, but now that's changing. People had convictions about these issues. They cared about these issues. But sometimes the conviction is what drove the research. You can't fault them, because they were pioneers in the field. It's great that they even devoted that much effort to it. But we really do, in terms of just bringing it to the mainstream, you need to have really good, and reliable, careful research, and that's starting to come out now. 

If there was one core statement  wish that people would take away from this book, what would it be?
That the moral challenge of the century is gender inequity and the challenges that women and girls face around the world, in some cases more brutal than what we see at home. Every individual can help. Every individual can make a difference. If they can only respond to the cause and find how they think that they can express their talents and help the cause, that's really all that we ask for.

I saw CARE's Half the Sky presentation, which I thought was excellent. But a question came to my mind, which is, is part of the reason this book is getting so much press  because there's a man's face, a man's name attached to it, versus the women's activists you would more commonly expect to be tied to it? Have you felt that at all? How would you respond to that?
As we've said, we think this is a man's and a woman's issue. That's why we think it's so perfect, because it's a social issue that both men and women have to work on. It really isn't just a woman's issue. You cannot bring about change without men. That's a key part of our message.

Where do you see yourself going next as a writer, as a journalist?
You know, I really just don't know. We're still dealing with this. People always ask, 'What's you next book on?' I can't stop talking about this book. We don't have any other specific projects right now. This is really taking up a lot of our effort now.



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