I've been reporting for almost as long as I can remember. At first, it wasn't exactly my choice. A group of my peers in eighth grade held a meeting to start a school newspaper because they wanted to write, but none of them wanted to serve as the editor. They decided to elect me in my absence, and since I wasn't there to protest, I took the position. Soon I was writing for the local paper, too. I found I really liked running around my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, talking to new people and writing about what I'd learned. I haven't stopped reporting since.
It became clear that educating and financially empowering women wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the smart thing to do.
In my first full time job as a reporter, I was hired by The New York Times to cover business, a topic I knew very little about. I made that pretty clear and, with some luck and some maneuvering, I landed myself a new position as the Beijing bureau chief in 1989. My wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I were quickly reporting on the Tiananmen Square uprising, where I saw both horrific government abuse and inspiring acts of courage from the protesters.
Soon after our coverage of the uprising, we began to get a sense that the humanitarian abuses we were witnessing on the streets during that time were masking much quieter abuses that were happening every day in hospitals, homes and schools. We learned that every year tens of thousands of Chinese girls were being denied access to food and medical care—in effect, being killed—just because they were girls. It was a human rights abuse that dwarfed the stories on the front page, but it wasn't getting any attention.
At the same time, while living in China, I was watching an unprecedented economic boom across a number of Asian countries. The reasons were complicated and varied from country to country, but one important piece of the equation was that the societies that were excelling were sending girls to school, and the educated women were then joining the formal labor force.
Sheryl and I started looking more at gender issues around the world, and the more we looked, the more we found. Increasingly, we came to think of the oppression of women and girls as the central human rights abuse of our age. But when societies started sending girls to school and into jobs, it proved the most cost-effective way they could chip away at poverty, violence, and extremism and simultaneously reach greater economic prosperity.
It became clear that educating and financially empowering women wasn't just the right thing to do, it was the smart thing to do. And so we set off reporting on women's issues with two goals: to shine a light on the burdens facing women around the world, and to tell the stories of incredibly inspiring women who had not only overcome these challenges, but were now providing education, good health services and economic opportunities to women and girls. They were transforming their communities by leveraging the potential of fellow women.
When Sheryl and I wrote Half the Sky to share this reporting, we were aghast that some people thought the book would be depressing reading. Of course, there is grim material out there. But in our writing, we told stories of women triumphing in the face of extreme oppression.
Somaly Mam was one woman whose bravery and passion won me over right away. Somaly is a Cambodian who was sold to a brothel as a girl and, since escaping, has started her own anti-trafficking organization. Her foundation has worked with thousands of trafficking survivors, providing education, teaching routes to financial independence and training the most vocal girls as leaders in the anti-trafficking movement. Somaly herself has also become one of the world's best-known activists in the fight to end sex trafficking. She tirelessly takes brothel owners to court and urges police to close the worst brothels around. Her job is dangerous—she attracts attention from violent gangs and has suffered painful consequences. Yet she's determined to keep pushing for real progress.
Through individuals like Somaly, we looked at issues like sex trafficking, maternal health, sexual violence, forced prostitution, girls' education and economic empowerment for women. Ultimately, these aren't just scourges of the world today, but opportunities to change the world and benefit the entire population.
Once we wrote the book, we wanted to take these stories even further and build a greater audience. It seemed to us that we needed a global grassroots movement to address international women's issues. It was already starting, but we felt we could encourage it along. So, we set out to make a film that aired on PBS in the fall and reached the homes of more than 5 million Americans. We have also launched mobile games and a Facebook game that educate players on the importance of deworming pills, lessons for a healthy pregnancy, the value of female empowerment groups and other steps toward ending gender inequality. These are experiments in media, education and engagement, but we're hopeful that gaming will prove to be a powerful new tool to build social awareness of critical issues.
One of the things I've learned over the years is that public attention really can create an environment from which solutions emerge. A movement can make an extraordinary difference in allocating resources, inspiring individuals, and applying pressure on governments here and abroad. And this is really what we aimed to do with Half the Sky—inform and motivate our readers, viewers and players to take steps that will bring about real change.
Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times since 2001, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and has co-authored several books with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, including "Half the Sky: From Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide."