Kristof Informs, Inspires in “Heritage and Hope” Closing Keynote

Posted September 30th, 2010 at 2:07 pm.

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Nicholas Kristof in Goodhart Hall

Urging conference participants and students to seek opportunities to advance worldwide gender equality, New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof closed the “Heritage and Hope” conference on an optimistic note.

Kristof co-authored the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide along with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. As she introduced him, Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe noted that she had taught a short course on the book last spring. “My students,” she said, “found it riveting and life-changing.”

After thanking the Bryn Mawr students who had joined him at lunch for their stories of the experiences they had recently had during internships abroad, Kristof began his closing keynote address at the conference with an account of the newspaper story that unexpectedly led to a $10,000 gift that a Chinese village invested in educating its girls. The village, Kristof said, was “totally transformed” in the years that followed. The girls reinvested in their community, starting a “virtuous spiral.” In economic growth, the village outperformed, by a wide margin, nearby villages that did not give girls and boys equal access to education. This accidental experiment, Kristof said, provided solid evidence that giving girls access to education benefits not only girls, but the whole society.

With a series of affecting and sometimes shocking images, Kristof illustrated what he called “lethal gender inequity”—the inequitable denial of food and health care to women and girls. This, he says, accounts for the fact that there are more boys and men in the world than there are girls and women—between 60 and 100 million “missing girls.” “In any one decade,” Kristof said, more women die of lethal gender inequity than in “all of people who died in all of the genocides of all of the 20th century.” These stark statistics have led Kristof to characterize gender inequity as “the foremost moral challenge of this century,” the successor to slavery in the 19th century and totalitarianism in the 20th.

Because information about such appalling injustice is becoming more readily available, Kristof said, women’s issues are moving into the mainstream. “But even putting aside the injustices … there’s a practical side to the equation, too,” he argued.

One key effect of educating women is lowering birthrates, a critical step in fighting poverty and, he noted, a key antiterrorism strategy, since a “demographic bulge” is often cited as a key contributing factor in the rise of terrorism.

Kristof also cited Bill Gates’ answer to a Saudi man who asked if he thought it feasible for Saudi Arabia to become one of the top ten countries in high technology. “If you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top ten,” Gates replied. This argument, Kristof said, is more likely than the appeal to justice to influence policymakers in times of economic crisis.

Kristof identified several areas of focus for advocates of gender equality, including human trafficking, or modern slavery; maternal health care; microfinance; and equal access to education. Giving examples of women who have survived brutal injustice to become assets to their communities, he encouraged listeners to visit his Half the Sky Movement website to find ways to join the effort.

“We tell ourselves that this work is depressing,” Kristof says, and it often is. “But at the same time, you see stories of unbelievable inspiration, people who are accomplishing things that you never could have imagined.”

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