Two-thirds of the world’s 758 million illiterate people are women. Project Literacy, a global movement campaigning for advances in literacy levels worldwide, has compiled a body of research called the Alphabet of Illiteracy which demonstrates how illiteracy underpins almost every major problem humanity faces, from A-Z. Many of these issues relate directly to women: C is for Child Brides, F is for FGM, G is for Gender Inequality, X is for X-Rated. These are all themes that were explored in Half the Sky: How to Change the World by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
Coinciding with International Literacy Day, Emma Watson’s book club, Our Shared Shelf, is currently reading Half The Sky. Here she poses her questions to the authors.
Emma Watson: Since its publication seven years ago, there has been tremendous headway in the fight for women’s rights, though there is still much work to be done. What new challenges have surfaced since you wrote the book? Which threat has evolved the most since the book’s publication?
Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: First, Emma, thanks so much for recommending Half the Sky and for your work on these issues. We really do feel the progress, and that’s partly because so many more people are aware of abuses now than a decade ago.
If we were rewriting Half the Sky, we might say more about challenges in the West. We focused on the developing world because that’s where the challenges are greatest, but we truly do face enormous gender inequities in America and Europe as well. Activists tend to focus on issues like equal pay or equal representation on boards, and those are real, but two of the most important neglected issues are domestic violence and human trafficking. In the U.S. alone, three women are murdered each day by their boyfriends or husbands, while some 10,000 girls under 18 are trafficked each year into the sex trade. So we definitely want to see a continued focus on global issues, but we also don’t have the credibility to tell other countries to clean up their act unless we do more at home.
EW: According to EqualityNow.org, sexual exploitation and the trafficking of women and children is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, despite laws in 134 countries criminalizing it. Why do you think it continues to rise so relentlessly, and what do you think is the single most effective solution for fighting it? Is there one?
NK and SW: We’d be wary of saying that sex trafficking is increasing globally, because we just don’t have good enough data to have a clear sense of trends. But trafficking is certainly widespread, and that’s partly because society looks down on the victims and because they are usually the most voiceless of people: poor, female and powerless. There is also the myth that this is a victimless crime, that women who sell sex are doing so willingly. Yes, some do, but millions do not, and a woman in a brothel may smile because if she doesn’t meet her quota for the day she’ll be beaten. There is no silver bullet to fight sex trafficking, but one experiment in Cebu, the Philippines, suggests that training police and targeting the problem of trafficking children really does reduce the number of kids being raped in brothels each day. Likewise, in places like America, it makes sense to go after the pimps and traffickers rather than prosecute the women and girls — who in fact are typically the victims. Finally, we’re sympathetic to the Swedish model, which prosecutes the customers and thus aims to reduce the demand for commercial sex that drives human trafficking.
EW: At the end of Half the Sky, you offer four steps that everyone can take to make big changes. Are there other effective and simple steps that every person — of any age and in any location — can take to help economically empower women around the world?
NK and SW: On the economic empowerment side, the evidence increasingly suggests that microloans are somewhat less effective than people had hoped, but that microsavings somewhat more effective (the example we give in Half the Sky of Goretti in Burundi is of microsavings, i.e. helping her save small sums and invest them in small businesses). So there has been a big push by many aid groups for community savings and loan associations that support women; CARE has been a leader in this, but many groups do it. We’re also seeing more evidence of the transformative effects of programs targeting young children. If one deworms kids through groups like Deworm the World, they will grow up to be healthier and earn more money and support their families better. Educating girls always has transformative effects not just on them but also on their communities. And providing family planning for the 200 million women around the world who don’t want to get pregnant but don’t have access to birth control should be a no-brainer!
One of our frustrations is that since 9/11 the West has focused on addressing terrorism and insecurity almost exclusively through the military toolbox. Yes, we need a military toolbox, but over time the women’s empowerment and education toolboxes have a somewhat better record of curbing violence and extremists.
And extremists understand this: That’s why the Taliban shot Malala, that’s why Boko Haram kidnaps school girls; they understand that the greatest threat to violent extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book.
EW: You introduce us to so many inspirational and strong women who you met in your travels — for example, Sunitha Krishnan in India, who founded Prajwala, which has helped former prostitutes find liberation and success through vocational skills training. I am sure you keep in touch with Sunitha, along with many other women you met. Could you offer a story or two of where they are now? How have they grown and their lives/careers blossomed?
NK and SW: It’s been exciting to see women thrive and prosper when they have a chance. In Half the Sky, we write about Edna Adan and the maternity hospital she founded in Somaliland, and since then she has expanded her efforts to try and tackle maternal mortality and FGM throughout her country. We’ve visited Somaliland and seen Edna start a program to train midwives, and she recruits them from rural areas and then dispatches them back home again to set up outposts so that pregnant women can get some pre-natal care before delivering. Edna has also become a leader in fighting FGM in her country, and she’s having some success in reducing the most extreme kind of cutting. Local Muslim women like Edna are so much more powerful advocates against FGM than Westerners who march in and say “that’s barbaric.”
We also wrote about obstetric fistula in Half the Sky, and Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s work repairing fistulas in young women. We’re thrilled to report that there has been considerable progress in treating fistulas, and Dr. Hamlin has presided over a huge improvement in maternal health in rural Ethiopia. These days, when women need fistula repair in Ethiopia, they usually get it, and the Fistula Foundation has been training surgeons to repair fistulas in Angola, Niger, Congo and other countries. A fistula historically was one of the worst things that can happen to a teenage girl, and it’s now on its way out.
EW: What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect to the charity work you have done with Half the Sky and the women you met?
NK and SW: People wonder how it is that we write about human trafficking, FGM and genocide, global poverty and genocide, and remain upbeat. Frankly, it’s because of the people you see on the front lines: Side by side with the worst of humanity, you see the best. Congo, for example, is rape capital of the world, and site of the most lethal conflict since World War II. But a doctor named Denis Mukwege runs the Panzi Hospital there, focused on treating women and fighting against sexual violence — continuing despite attempts to assassinate him. He may win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, as he should, and he’s an inspiring reminder of the difference brave people make at the grass roots. It’s possible to come back from a place like eastern Congo feeling better about humans!
EW: 2016 is perhaps one of the most crucial years in the fight for women’s equality because the Democrats have elected the first female candidate. No matter who takes office in November, what do you think will be the most pressing issue that the next American president will have to face in the fight for women’s rights?
NK and SW: We would love to see the next president take on two big issues in this area.
First is sexual violence, including human trafficking. Surely, more than 150 years after the Civil War, we can muster the political will to make it a top priority to end the enslavement of women and girls around the world. The British prime minister, Theresa May, has made comments about making this a priority, and Clinton and May could work together to make a real difference on this issue globally — including in the U.S. and the U.K. It’s outrageous that in America, police sometimes arrest 15-year-old girls for prostitution while letting the pimps who enslave them go free.
Second is education, especially girls’ education. We need a global push to get the last 60 million kids in the world into primary school worldwide, accompanied by a push to ensure that kids are actually learning. For too long, advocates focused just on the raw number of kids in school or out of school; it’s now clear that many children are in school but in a class of 100 without text books or any familiarity with the language of instruction, so they learn nothing. For about $20 billion a year, we could get all kids worldwide in school, actually learning. It’s a significant sum but a small fraction of the cost of our Afghan “surge.”
EW: Europe is facing an unprecedented refugee-crisis right now, with more than a million refugees entering the continent in 2015 alone. According to Pew research, roughly 73 percent of those refugees fleeing the Middle East are men. Are there new crises developing in the Middle East specifically for women, and what sort of problems are refugee women facing right now that are unique to this situation?
NK and SW: Women are already vulnerable in the Middle East, and to be a refugee is to be particularly at risk. In Lebanon alone, there are 200,000 Syrian refugee children who should be in school but can’t attend, and they are disproportionately female. Some girls have been forced into the sex trade, and others have been married off as young brides — sometimes as second or third wives to much older men — because then at least someone will feed them. In Libya, we heard of a teenage refugee girl who was kept in an underground pit and brought up once a day to be raped by a series of men who paid for the privilege. What do you call that but slavery and torture?
The other thing we’re seeing in parts of the Middle East and North Africa is the rise of extremist groups like ISIS or AQIM that don’t believe women should have any rights at all. ISIS has justified the sexual enslavement of Yazidi girls, and countless Yazidi teenagers have been passed around among Yazidi men to be raped. We think it’s a mistake to say that women are the worst victims of war — after all, ISIS simply murdered the Yazidi men and boys — but it is true that women and girls become particularly vulnerable. We are seeing some healthy responses, though, such as a collapse of old taboos about discussing sexual violence and the assumption that the sin is being raped, as opposed to raping. Congratulations to the Yazidi women who have spoken up about the abuse they suffered — and congratulations to the many Yazidi men who have announced that they will be happy to marry Yazidi women who were raped by ISIS, recognizing that those women have nothing to be ashamed of.
EW: In Half the Sky, you say that “one of the great failings of the American education system is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad.” What specific initiatives do you think American schools should implement in order to raise awareness of poverty and economic inequality?
NK and SW: We’d like to see high schools and colleges alike expand service learning so that privileged students interact more with disadvantaged kids. That may mean a trip to Bangladesh, or it could mean tutoring kids in one’s own hometown, or staffing a rape crisis center, or counselling in a prison, or volunteering at a substance abuse center. We’d also like to see American universities encourage more gap years in programs like City Year or Citizen Year Abroad, and more study abroad that isn’t just aimed at sending herds of students to London or Rome. If a kid gets malaria, give him or her extra credit!
Senator Tim Kaine was put on his trajectory as Hillary Clinton’s running mate when he took a year off law school to volunteer with the Jesuits in Central America, and Utah has benefited economically and educationally because so many young Mormons from Utah live abroad and learn languages on missions.
More young people should be encouraged to get out of their comfort zones — whether in Nicaragua or by volunteering at a prison.
EW: In Half the Sky, you say that “the tools to crush modern slavery exist, but the political will is lacking.” Why do you think that is, and how can we use our own voice and vote to motivate our politicians to take action?
NK and SW: The basic problem is that we as a society look down on girls who have been trafficked. We see them on the street and they’re wearing inappropriate clothing, they may be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, they may be in love with their pimps. We are prepared to empathize with a girl who is chained to a radiator in a brothel, but we scorn a girl who runs away from police back to her pimp — partly because we don’t understand the brainwashing and violence that those girls go through. So prostitution has traditionally been viewed as a public nuisance issue, and thus the police arrest the girls and try to move them out of town. We need to push police and prosecutors to recognize it as a human rights issue and get them to focus on the pimps and the johns who create the problem. We can also do a much better job providing servicers and shelters for at-risk young women, so that the only people on the lookout for them aren’t pimps. We should spread the word among friends and all around us so that this is an issue that counts with voters.
EW: It seems more than ever before, every time we turn on the news there is a new tragedy or catastrophic event to report on... Movements like the one you’ve started with Half the Sky, and continued with A Path Appears are so important as they encourage solidarity in the values we share. So I guess my last question is, what is next for you?
NK and SW: Frankly, we’re not sure. After Half the Sky we wanted to weigh in on domestic social justice issues, so we wrote A Path Appears. We’ve also tried to move beyond the books with the television documentary series for Half the Sky and A Path Appears, to reach a new audience. We’ve also been trying to address the refugee crisis, partly because Nick’s dad was a refugee and so he is particularly appalled by their treatment. Nick has been reporting on not just Syrian refugees but also Central Americans, and also South Sudan’s worsening human rights situation. So we’re not sure just what new projects we’ll be focused on, but we do invite readers to follow us on Facebook (facebook.com/wudunn and facebook.com/Kristof), or on Nick’s email newsletter (nytimes.com/KristofEmail) and through them you’ll know what windmills we’re tilting at!
Finally, Emma, thanks again for a great conversation and for your efforts to make “a path appear” for those who need it most. And to all members of the book club, we hope you enjoy Half the Sky, but most of all, we hope it moves you to action. The best letters we get from readers are those who say that the book so outraged them that they then started a giving circle, or launched a literacy program at the local women’s prison, or volunteered at a nearby preschool, or sponsored a child, or in some other way tried to move from reading to doing. Thanks in advance for anything you do!
EW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.