I returned to my City College of New York (CCNY) alma mater on the evening of March 29 to be inspired by a truly gifted and socially committed journalist. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The NY Times, Nicholas D. Kristof, began his talk by asking the audience whether there were more males or females in the world. I, along with most, responded incorrectly; despite a natural numerical advantage in female births, there are more males alive today. Why? Because gender discrimination drives greater mortality among girls, including abortions and infanticide of females, as well as instances of abuse and the exploitation of women. This 2012 Samuel Rudin Distinguished Visiting Scholar Lecture at CCNY was entitled “Half the Sky: Changing the World by Empowering Women.”
At the end of the evening, when it was my turn to get his autograph for my newly purchased copy of Half the Sky, I told him that I write & blog for Tikkun, and that I had nominated him for Tikkun’s human rights award last year, and expect to do so again, if this prize is still in the offing. He smiled broadly. (Are you reading this, Michael?)
In a recent column, Kristof follows up on his exposé of Backpage.com, an online marketing vehicle which allegedly deals in the enslavement and trafficking of underage girls for the sex trade. This company is owned by Village Voice Media (yes, the owner of The Village Voice, no longer the crusading progressive voice that it once was) and among its investors is no less than Goldman Sachs (putting graphic new meaning to the notion of a “rapacious” Wall St. firm); the latter moved rapidly to divest itself in response to his initial column (to be fair, Goldman claims to have had no say in, nor knowledge of, VVM’s operations).
But Kristof’s most impressive work has been in Asia and Africa. When asked by a journalism student of any ethical dilemmas between his dual roles as a reporter and as an advocate, he recounted what happened when he and his wife were confronted by a Chinese co-worker, who reached their home in Beijing after escaping from prison, begging for help. He was a student activist arrested during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. The ethical problem they faced was in how to affect his escape from China without implicating their employer, The NY Times, which could have led The Times bureau to be closed down; somehow (in what could probably be a book in itself) they managed to get him to Hong Kong and then to freedom in the US.
Most of Kristof’s work has to do with assisting girls in getting an education to escape grinding poverty, or to escape other ills that beset females in the Third World. One such story he discussed in his slide show (and I recall from his column some years back) was his “purchase” of two young Cambodian prostitutes. One was so badly addicted to methamphetamine that she returned to the brothel that had hooked her in the first place to keep her in line. Many of these girls, sold by their impoverished families or kidnapped by the brothels, die of AIDS or abuse. According to Kristof, the police are often in league with the brothel owners (in some cases, police officials are the brothel owners); but he did tell one delicious story of an effective police tactic against a brothel—they demanded more in bribes than the owner was willing to pay.
Another issue is women’s health. In Niger, Africa, for example, there’s a one in ten chance of dying in child birth. There’s also the terrible problem of “fistula” when a difficult birth causes a rupture between the vagina and either the rectum or bladder. The victim leaks waste uncontrollably; the resulting stink causes her to be locked out of her home and shunned. One of his slides featured a young woman who escaped this terrible fate by crawling 30 miles (her fistula had also caused nerve damage that prevented her from walking upright) to the nearest hospital where she was lucky to be treated with the appropriate surgical remedy. During her recovery, she helped with various chores around the hospital, was found to be quite intelligent and eventually was trained to be a nurse. She works as a nurse at this same hospital today.
One can learn more about the cause that Kristof champions by reading Half The Sky, the book he co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn, or by visiting their website.