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Pulitzer prize winner details discrimination against women

Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke at the Diversity Lecture Series at Fountain Street Church, spoke about equitable rights for women as a worldwide issue, not just a women's issue.

/Jonathan Pichot

Underwriting support from:

GRCC Diversity Lecture Series

Throughout the school year, the Diversity Center of GRCC invites lecturers from various fields and backgrounds to participate in the series. Coming up in the next few months:

  • Oct. 26 - Jeannette Walls (author, journalist, columnist)
  • Nov. 9 - Maziar Bahari (journalist, filmmaker, former political prisoner)
  • Feb. 15 - Jeff Johnson (author, journalist, social activist)
  • March 14 - Naomi Wolf (author, social critic, political activist)

For full bios on each of the speakers, visit GRCC's Diversity Lecture Series page.

/Denise Cheng

Grand Rapids Community College kicked off its 17th Diversity Lecture Series last night, welcoming New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to the podium at Fountain Street Church (24 Fountain Street NE). Kristof, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, is a co-author with his wife of Half The Sky, which details and tackles three major abuses in the world against women: sex trafficking, gender-based violence and maternal mortality.

"In any 10-year period, in any decade, you have more girls who are discriminated against to death because of their gender than all of the people who died and in all of the genocides in the 20th century," he said. But there's another side of this. Putting aside the injustices, if you want to bring about change on so many of the issues we care about—whether it is global poverty, whether it's the kind of insecurity that racks Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, whether it's climate change, so many of the issues that we face—there are no quick fixes, no silver bullets. But one of the most cost-effective ways of making a difference is to educate girls, to bring those educated women into the formal labor force, and to see precisely the kind of virtuous cycle unfold as has happened in China. Put it another way: Women and girls aren't the problem, they're the solution to so many of these issues."

Kristof's passion around women's rights began to rise exponentially when he and wife Sheryl WuDunn lived in China, where "women hold up half the sky" is a common expression.

"When we were in China, we began to see both the injustices that often afflict women in particular and girls but also what happens when you invest in women."

While traveling to and from the Hu Bei province, Kristof met the brightest student in school, a girl by the name of Dai Manju who had to drop out of school shortly after because her family could not afford the fees.  Kristof framed her as the poster child for girls' education in China in a Times article that garnered many $13 checks as well as a $10,000 wire. Kristof reported back to the donor, sharing with him how far $10,000 goes in rural China.

"'I only sent $100!'" blurted the dumbfounded donor. It turned out to be a bank error, and Kristof assumed the role of an advocate.

"This is not something you'll have learned to do in journalism class," quipped Kristof, who wrote a follow-up article. "I called up the chief spokesman for the bank, who I knew, and I told him, truthfully, exactly what had happened … 'Now just one question, on the record: Are you planning to try to get the $9,900 back and force all these girls to drop out of school?' He didn't miss a beat. He said, 'on the record, under the circumstances, we're delighted to make a donation of the difference.'"

Dai Manju went on to college, became an accountant and later an entrepreneur who has added jobs to the economy.

In his career, Kristof has traveled around the world and reported about what he has come to believe are the three most salient issues: human trafficking, reproductive health and investing in women's education. Kristof also emphasized that it is not a war between the genders. "It's so much more complicated than that. So many of the bad things that happen to girls happen at the hands of women," said Kristof, who bought two girls from a female brothel owner in order to reunite them with their families.

In Ethiopia, he had met Mahabouba Mohammed, who was married off at 12 to a man four times her age. She became pregnant, gave birth alone and her child died. She suffered from an obstetric fistula which can happen when girls' hips are not fully formed for sexual reproduction. Waste would dribble between her legs, and she could not walk because the nerves in her leg muscles had been damaged.

"We're not only talking about tragedies but we're also talking about opportunities," Kristof said.

With a stench floating around Mahabouba, the village was convinced that she had been cursed and exiled her to a hut at the edge of the village, ripped off the door and hoped the hyenas would get her. All night, she waved a stick at the hyenas and at dawn, began crawling the 30 miles to the nearest American physician, who brought her to a hospital that fixed the fistula with a $350 surgery. Mahabouba is now a nurse at that hospital.

Prior to his presentation at Fountain Street Church, Kristof had spent the day lecturing at Aquinas College, where someone had asked how he keeps from being depressed by what he sees. He often thinks of the story of a boy who throws starfish one by one into the ocean when someone points out that there are thousands of beached starfish. "'It sure made a difference to that one,'" the boy said.

"In contrast, what is depressing is to talk to young people here for whom there is no grearter expression of humanity than to have a hot car or the latest cell phone. That is truly depressing," Kristof said. To have any moral authority on the international scene, Kristof believes that Americans must start at home, where there are many runaway girls who are forced into prostitution.

"People are always a little bit puzzled about why it is a New York Times columnist, and a man to boot, should be writing so much about women's rights around the world," Kristof said. "The Holocaust wasn't just a Jewish issue, civil rights weren't just a black issue, and when you have 50-120 million women missing around the world because of discrimination, it's not just a women's issue. It's a vast human rights issue that everybody, I think, has a responsibility to try to address."

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wow. I'm sorry I missed this lecture. Powerfully maddneing stuff.