The accomplishments of Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof, as both a married couple and as individuals, are nothing short of extraordinary. WuDunn and Kristof have each won Pulitzer Prizes, contributed to the New York Times, co-authored four best-selling books, and traveled the globe, working toward their altruistic goal of creating a positive change for those in need.
WuDunn is the current senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities, and Kristof has written an op-ed column for The New York Times since 2001. The human rights activists spoke about their global experiences that led to their 2008 book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
Liza Magill ’17, international studies major and medical humanities minor, introduced the husband and wife duo last Thursday night at Boston College. Magill commented on how the couple’s writing has captured both her attention and her heart. She went on to praise Kristof and WuDunn for how they “use the power of language, empathy, and imagination to call for action.” Kristof and WuDunn penned Half the Sky as a platform for just that.
WuDunn began the conversation about the book by addressing the audience with the question, “Why is it women and girls became the focus in Half the Sky?” She answered the question with an anecdote about a young girl she met in a poor, rural area of China.
The girl was close to leaving school because the tuition, just $13 a year, was to be given to her brothers instead of her. Yet, by way of a generous donation, all the children in her village, girls included, were able to continue their studies.
That same girl continued on to a vocational school for accounting and eventually travelled south to acquire a job. She began to earn enough money to send home for electricity, running water, and overall improved living conditions.
WuDunn proclaimed, “It was a revolution for them. It was a transformation, and that’s what we learned first hand what girls’ education can do. Education is the foundation.”
Despite such a pleasant, WuDunn believes that the central moral problem in the 21st century is “the oppression of women and girls throughout the world.” She acknowledges that this is a loaded claim but supports it with the fact that there are 60 to 100 million girls missing in the world.
These girls go “missing” due to tragedies like maternal mortality rates and malnutrition. Additionally, young girls often receive smaller meal portions in feeding centers because their parents allocate larger portions of food to boys. While WuDunn suggests these are the issues plaguing the central moral theme of this century, she also urges that the public understands the pragmatics of this problem.
“One of the best and most efficient ways to fight poverty and terrorism is to bring women and girls into the main stream of society and get them education and jobs,” WuDunn posits. It has been proven that the education and acceptance of women and girls in parts of countries such as Afghanistan brings stability to society, along with a decrease in violence.
In all, WuDunn argued “that is the thinking that needs to change…Women and girls aren’t the problem. They are the solution.” From here, Kristof continued the talk on how better health conditions and education for girls and women can change the world.
He focused his time on the couple’s co-authored 2014 book A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. Kristof informed the audience that many people ask him how he stays so positive even as a witness to the world’s worst tragedies. His explanation?
“I think there is a misperception of the trajectory in the world today. The progress, globally, has been stunning. Just since 1990, the number of kids each year has dropped by half.”
Kristof further noted that there are many global problems that are unnecessary, like cataracts and river blindness. These health complications can be easily fixed with proper procedures, but many do not have access to first-world medicine. Yet, he advises global citizens to not be so pessimistic about the conditions of the world.
“I think that education is a pathway to progress in so many areas,” he stated, following up with urgency. “It’s not just about good intentions — it’s about working towards results, it’s about knowledge, it’s about listening to people.”
One person who took these values to heart was a young man from Kenya, Kennedy Odede. He studied at Wesleyan University and returned to Kenya to open The Kibera School for Girls. Kristof views the operation as “the reminder that when one gives people a chance, then so much can be accomplished in ways that benefit absolutely everybody. This opportunity gap is the great challenge of our generation—the opportunity gap here and abroad. The difficult[y] in addressing it is not so much the technical means of what to do; it is more an issue of will of empathy.”
Kristof informed the audience that in the US, the poorest 20 percent of the population donate more to charities (based on income) than the wealthiest 20 percent. He explains, “It seems to be that if you are affluent in America in 2016, then you’re insulated from need. You’re intellectually aware of it, but it’s not something that you encounter.” Therefore poverty is not just an economic failing, but a moral failing as well.
Kristof challenges everyone to think of the world’s problems as one’s own personal responsibility to tackle. He acknowledged the advantage of being a college student, especially at a place like BC.
“University is a time when you can get out and you can escape from this cocoon… There are all kinds of ways you can get out of your comfort zone, and I really hope you will do that, not just because it will benefit other people…We learn more about the world, we gain some sense of perspective about ourselves, what we can do…I hope that you will have that chance to interact with very different worlds abroad and here at home.”
He continues to warn all not to think that their individual efforts will not make a difference. “We become vulnerable that anything we do is just going to become a drop in the bucket, but I am a believer in drops in the bucket.”
Kristof acknowledges that the issue of female education cannot be corrected overnight. Yet both he and his wife have seen the positive impacts that arise when just one girl is given the rare opportunity to attend school, and he assures us that “drops in the bucket is how you fill buckets.”