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Equality Still Elusive For World's Women

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Equality Still Elusive For World's Women

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Equality Still Elusive For World's Women

Equality Still Elusive For World's Women

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Women right's advocates have made some strides in recent decades. But most of the world's poorest are female, fewer girls than boys attend school and women are still vastly underrepresented in leadership positions. Former Ireland President Mary Robinson, the World Bank's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and columnist Nicholas Kristof explain the challenges of improving women's lives worldwide.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in New York City for the start of the 65th United Nations General Assembly.

One of the major themes here this week: Improve the lives of women. We know that increased access to education, health care and jobs makes life better for women and their families. We are also learning that while that's important in itself, it's also a huge economic catalyst.

As women in developing countries get more opportunities, the entire economy improves, but while there are examples of remarkable progress, the U.N. reports that still the majority of the world's poorest people are women and girls.

Less than 16 percent of the world's parliamentarians are women. Girls are much more likely to be kept out of school. And in too many places, women are still systematically subject to violence.

Later in this hour, a Broadway musical on the sixth president of the United States, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." But first, the changing role of women, and we'd like to hear from the women in our audience today. Those of you who have been overseas recently, what's changed? What did you see? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin here in the studio with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, the first woman to hold that office. She has since founded the group Realizing Rights, the ethical globalization initiative. Nice to have you back on the program with us today.

Ms. MARY ROBINSON (Former President, Ireland): Thank you very much, nice to be back.

CONAN: And what - you also have direct involvement with this. You served as U.N. high commissioner for human rights. What do you see when you travel around the world? What gives you hope? What makes you frustrated?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, what gave me hope recently was when I went back to Sierra Leone. I hadn't been there since the year 1999, when there was fighting in Freetown, and it was really very difficult.

And when I was there just about six weeks ago, I was really impressed by a political decision taken in April by the president of Sierra Leone. After a lot of consultation, he said there's going to be free medical care, free health care for pregnant women, for lactating mothers and for children under five.

And I went with Irish concern and the Irish ambassador and that to a clinic in a slum area of Freetown, and the clinic was overwhelmed. The numbers were twice or three times as many.

And then when I went to the main hospital, Princess Christina(ph) Hospital, the same thing, huge numbers had come out because they were deterred by medical costs. And that was why the mortality rate in Sierra Leone recently was one in eight.

Imagine becoming pregnant and knowing you have a one in eight chance of dying. That's what it was. And those beleaguered health workers didn't say to me this shouldn't happen. They all said, more or less, our jobs are much more difficult, but this has to happen.

And that was a kind of real breakthrough. And we are seeing some progress. I mean, the number of children who die unnecessarily before the age of five has come down to eight million. So that's eight million unnecessary deaths. That's more than 20,000 a day.

I chair the GAVI Alliance board. We're trying to reach all children with immunization. That's one very good way in which we can try and address that. So for every statistic, you know, it means we have to do more.

I feel very strongly with my colleagues in Realizing Rights as a human rights body that we haven't been as successful on the help of either women or children because we didn't take a rounded approach that also looks at discrimination, lack of equality, as you've mentioned, early child marriage.

There are girls being married at the age of nine or 10 to 40- or 80-year-old men because they are the property of their family. And lack of family planning and reproductive health, all of these factors matter, lack of property rights and land rights.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Also with us is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, served as Nigeria's first female finance minister, later the first female foreign minister, now managing director of the World Bank, and she joins us from studios at the United Nations. And it's very good to have you with us today.

Ms. NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA (Managing Director, World Bank): Thank you, good to be with you.

CONAN: And both you and Mary Robinson, in a sense, embody the progress that some women have made in these past few years. You work in a traditionally male-dominated field. Finance minister, there must have been some eyebrows raised when you first took that job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: Yes, well, there were eyebrows raised. But I think in my country also, we have a tradition of women, you know, being seen as entrepreneurs, being seen as contributing to the family. So even though I was the first, actually people were wondering why it took so long. And I think the bottom line was to try and do the job in such a way that it's not a question of whether you're female or male but that you're performing.

But let me just make one or two points. I mean, I think that even though the situation with regard to gender equality and access of girls and women to economic empowerment is not what it should be, I think there is room for hope.

And the reason I say that is because we've found incontrovertible evidence that when you invest in girls and women, it pays off. We've done many studies at the World Bank that show this. I'll just cite one or two.

In Kenya, we did a study looking at agricultural productivity of women and male farmers, giving them the same access to seeds, fertilizer and extension advice. The women showed 40 percent more productivity in their agricultural endeavor than the men.

Similarly, we did a study in Tanzania that shows if you invest in girls' schooling, it could add $2 billion to Tanzania's GDP. That's four percent of the country's gross national income.

And I could go on and on with examples. So the bottom line is there are 205 million girls in the world, adolescent girls, and 72 million of them are out of school. If we invest in them, with this kind of figures that I've given you, we are really going to have a tremendous economic impact on the world in poor countries.

What we are happy about is that at the World Bank, we are now working to collect all the body of evidence in a development report, which is coming next year, on gender so that no more will people say oh, there's no evidence. We cannot walk away now. We'll show you the solutions are there.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in our audience, the women in particular who have been overseas recently. If you've seen change for good or ill, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Christine(ph), Christine with us from Nashville.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me on the show.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRISTINE: I was in Morocco about a year ago, spent a month there. My husband's Moroccan, and we were there with my family. And what I saw was that there is still some prejudice against women, but they're trying very hard to either hide it or trying very hard to change it.

So I was impressed with, you know, not just the progress that was being made, obviously from what is usually Arabic countries are associated with, but that they're welcoming women from outside into their culture.

CONAN: And so give us an example of what you mean.

CHRISTINE: By them hiding it or by them...

CONAN: A little bit of both.

CHRISTINE: By them - well, for example, I know that people that did not exactly approve of me being not only a working woman but being the breadwinner of the family, but they respected what I did and did not say anything against that. You could just tell that they were, found that surprising.

(Soundbite of clicking)

CONAN: Hello?

CHRISTINE: Yes, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, okay. Go ahead. I thought we lost you there for a second.

CHRISTINE: No, what I was saying is that people saw that I was the breadwinner, you know, when we talked, and I was obviously the one working and the breadwinner of the family. And they found it surprising, but they were trying very hard to accept it, the fact that I played little role in the household but was outside.

So they are accepting the roles, but they are still, I sensed they were shocked by it. But they didn't say anything against it, certainly. So that was an improvement over previously, women who worked outside the household, obviously that was looked down upon.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the observation. We appreciate it. Ngozi, let me ask you about that. Obviously, Morocco is not the only traditional society where change is coming and people are being forced to adapt.

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: Yes. I mean, in many of our societies, change is coming, and with the spread of the mobile phone, the Internet, you know, communications, I think more and more people are seeing that there's change elsewhere.

But more importantly, they're also seeing that the women being empowered brings economic prospects to the household. And so, you know, they need not be against this. It can actually work for the household. It can work for the nation and ultimately improve the well-being of the family.

So that is why. People see the change, this change, much as it's different from what they've known in the past, can be very welcome.

CONAN: Nicholas Kristof writes often about the role of women around the world. He's a columnist for the New York Times, co-wrote the book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," and he's been kind enough to join us here in our New York bureau today. Good to have you back on the program.

Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOF (Columnist, The New York Times; Author, "Half the Sky"): Delighted to be here.

CONAN: And you've traveled to some of the countries that we're talking about, talked with women in those places. Tell us a story. What gives you hope? What makes you really wring your hands and wonder what's going on?

Mr. KRISTOF: Well, I think what gives me hope is that there is a growing sense that I mean, a growing focus not on the tragedy here but on the opportunity side of it.

And I mean, clearly all kinds of injustices happen to women around the world, but I think that what has really gained traction is the sense that, you know, women and girls aren't the problem, they are the solution.

And I think that for Cheryl, my wife and co-author, the case that kind of galvanized us or made us really sort of see the opportunity was when we lived in China back in 1990, and we wrote an article about girls dropping out of school because they couldn't pay school fees.

And there was one girl in particular who had to drop out for want of $13 in school fees, the brightest kid in her school. We wrote an article for The New York Times, and her picture was there on the front page, and everybody sent in money. One person sent in $10,000, which turned out to be a bank error. He tried to send $100, but the bank made a little error, but the bank honored it.

And the upshot was that in that community, the school promised that girls would be able to stay in school without paying school fees as long as they could pay as long as they could make the grade, in a way that was not true of surrounding areas.

And we were able to follow, over the years since, over the 20 years since, what happened. And it's been really quite extraordinary to watch that obviously, all around China, people have living standards have risen, education standards have risen.

But that community was utterly transformed by that one-time bank mistake of $10,000 that got girls educated. They ended up not herding goats or working in the rice paddies but getting great jobs and sending money back and starting small businesses.

And it had this, it created this virtuous cycle of development, which is exactly what we need in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere around the world.

CONAN: More with Nicholas Kristof, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Mary Robinson when we come back from a short break, more of your calls, as well. We want to hear from the women in our audience. If you've traveled overseas recently, what sorts of changes have you seen? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

I'd also like to acknowledge the dozens of you who have called to point out that I failed American history, Andrew Jackson the seventh president of the United States. More about that later. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly.

We're talking about efforts to improve the lives of women and girls around the world. The United Nations has pledged to step-up its efforts to promote the rights of women and girls with a newly formed agency aimed at tackling the issue of gender equality.

We're talking with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and - who served as the first female finance minister and first female foreign minister in Nigeria. Also with us, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times.

We want to hear from women in our audience who've been overseas lately. What has changed? What did you see? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: And Mary Robinson, change does not necessarily come all at once. It comes gradually, and it can also come with some awkward difficulties because traditional roles remain needing to be filled.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. I was listening with interest to what your caller Christine was saying about Morocco, and I agree with her, and - there are changes.

But actually, I've spoken to quite a number of women. First of all, women in the Arab and wider Muslim world do want us to recognize that these changes are taking place. They get stigmatized so that there's a fundamentalism, et cetera. We need to get over that. There's a lot of change happening.

But when you speak to them, then, in a friendly way and draw them out a bit, they still usually have all of the household responsibilities - not even just their immediate family. They also have to be looking after a grandparent in the wider circle. It's a full-time job in itself.

So they combine that, then, with these new possibilities of being a businesswoman, being in politics, being a minister or whatever, and it's quite stressful.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Radika(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Maspeth. Is that where you are?

RADIKA (Caller): Actually, I'm calling from Manlius, New York.

CONAN: Oh, Manlius, New York, upstate. Go ahead.

RADIKA: Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I recently was in Hyderabad, India, which is the capital of Andhra Pradesh in the south. And education has always been very important. And just in the last 20, 25 years, women have been able to leave the home, get a job and not necessarily have to get married right away.

These young women have a lot of freedom now. They can make their own money. They can, you know, choose when they get married. They live on their own. And it just amazes me, the change that I've seen just within my lifetime, within the past 25, 30 years.

And I find it incredible that, you know, making sure that every daughter is educated and educated to the fullest, it makes such an impact. And talking about taking care of the home, things have become so that a lot of these ready-made foods and things like that are available so that the woman doesn't have to stay home and cook and clean and do all the things that she was traditionally supposed to do.

CONAN: That's interesting. Nick Kristof, let me follow up with you on that. We've seen reports this past week that the United Nations believes it's on track to the goal of the Millennium Development Goal on the eradication of extreme poverty, a lot of that due to what Radika is talking about, not just in India, but in China, as well, economic development that has lifted so many millions out of poverty.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. I mean, if you think about very poor countries, and in most cases, the greatest unexploited economic resource they have is not some kind of natural resource. It's not gold, and it's not diamonds. It's the female halves of their population.

And East Asia, one of the reasons East Asia prospered was that they figured out how to take village girls who were completely underutilized assets, educate them, give them the autonomy to move to the cities and bring them into the formal economy.

And the result was, you know, a virtual doubling of the formal labor force and a huge increase in productivity. And that is what we're beginning now to see worldwide.

CONAN: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - please excuse me for mispronouncing your name, but I wanted to follow up with you. We've been hearing some good things, but there is also, in Africa, some, well, very disturbing things we've seen in Congo recently. What's the first step to resolving a situation like that, where so much violence has been going on, and it seems to be just escalating, getting out of control, and very few in the world seem to be watching?

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, first, before I comment on Congo, I just want to comment on Africa. And I really want to make a strong statement here. African women don't want to be seen as victims. And we have to know that, you know, Africa is very differentiated. You know, Congo is not Africa.

So most African women, in many countries, are, you know, leading reasonable lives. They're entrepreneurs. You know, they are taking care of their families. They are trying to get an education. And what we want is the government to recognize this vast potential that Nick and Mary referred to in girls and women.

You know, so that's the first thing, that African women are so, so entrepreneurial. You have to admire them. Not only do they work in the farms, you know, and do most of the production - they're 70 percent of the workforce -but when they come to the cities, they trade. They are known for trading. So they definitely do not want to be seen as victims.

That being said, in the Congo, what is happening with the conflict and the rape is totally unacceptable. And I think that we just need accountability. We need to hold, you know, accountable. The world needs to say to the rebel soldiers who are doing this you know, how many of them are there? I want to ask. How many?

I mean, there are not too many of these people. Why is that we can't, you know, go in there with a U.N. force and other forces and do this? There's no point coming and talking about it on radio all the time, on TV, and talking about rape in the Congo, rape in the Congo.

I'm an African woman, and I'm enraged. I think we ought to be able to take care of this and hold these soldiers accountable. I don't want rape in Congo to define my continent.

CONAN: Thank you. That's a very powerful statement. Let's go next to Jane, Jane with us from Redlands in California.

JANE (Caller): Yes, hello. You know, I'm chapter eight in Nick's book, by the way, "Jane Roberts and Her 34 Million Friends."

I wanted to reiterate what Mary Robinson said, that if you really want to empower women, they honestly have to be able to control their own fertility. Family planning is such a gift. I mean, Americans use family planning. There's a huge unmet demand for family planning in the world. They say 210 million women lack access to modern methods of contraception. When I was in Mali and Senegal as a guest of the United Nations Population Fund, the clinics were just crowded with women just begging for family planning, and most of them had four and five kids already. And they looked exhausted. So anyway, to me, reproductive health is really has to be part and parcel with education for empowering women.

CONAN: Mary Robinson?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I have to very much agree with that. In fact, during this big week here in New York, I was involved with a number of other presidents and former presidents, informing a global leaders' council on reproductive health. And they include two sitting presidents, the president of Liberia - the only woman African president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Tarja Halonen, the president of Finland, and Ms. Cardozo, the former president of Brazil.

So we have men and women on it, and precisely what we're doing is trying to reclaim this area of reproductive health. It's absolutely vital. It's vital to all the goals. It's vital to women and girls. And there's been the stigma, the sensitivity, cultural issues. People don't want to talk about it. They don't want and we really have to stop that.

So we're going to champion and support all of those who know how important it is, and Nick knows how important it is.

CONAN: Well, Nick knows how important it is. But Nick, it is not uncontroversial. It is not uncontroversial in this country, much less in a lot of more traditional societies.

Mr. KRISTOF: Well, the problem is, I think, that the abortion wars and the political polarization here tended to make all reproductive health seem just radioactive. Nobody wanted to go near it. And so as a result, funding for family planning dropped.

But, you know, in truth, you can't really chip away at poverty, and you can't chip away at insecurity in countries like Pakistan, like Afghanistan, like Yemen if you - if women can't control their fertility and if you have these huge youth bulges in the population, which are composed of, you know, young men who can't get a job. And so I think we have to reverse this historic decline in funding for family planning programs.

Jane Roberts, the caller, has a sort of extraordinary history herself. She read about President Bush defunding the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, the U.N. Population Fund, and - of $34 million.

So she thought, you know, wow. You know, if 34 million Americans each put one dollar in an envelope and mailed it to you in UNFPA, then we would make that up. So she started this group, 34 Million Friends, and didn't quite make it to $34, but raised an awful lot of money.

JANE: Well, it's still going, Nick. We're way over $4 million, anyway, and I think every American could take a stand for the women in the world with a lousy dollar: 34millionfriends.org, everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRISTOF: More power to you.

CONAN: Jane, thanks very much for the phone call.

JANE: Thank you, Nick.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Mary, and Mary's with us from Green Bay.

MARY (Caller): Hi, I'm very, very happy to make a few comments. I do political training for the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C., and also for their Women's Democracy Network Program. And this is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

And I had the pleasure of teaching strategic planning seminars in Nigeria just in July. And I've been to Africa a number of times to speak at women's seminars, and the women - the seminars are summer work for women.

And the thing I love about going to Africa is that the women - you do programs for women. We are trying to empower them to engage in the political process, to consider running for office. We're doing strategic planning, trainings so women can organize their ideas and their thoughts so when they go - they campaign, they have a clear cut idea of what they're up to. And we find women from all walks of life, from MPs, members of parliament, and women who are just new to the system.

CONAN: I just wanted to interrupt. Ngozi, who encouraged you to run for office?

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, I actually didn't run for office. I was appointed...

CONAN: Aha.

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: ...as the finance minister. You know, we have still a presidential system similar to the U.S. where the cabinet members are appointed.

CONAN: Rather than a parliamentary system where members of parliament are cabinet officers.

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: That's right. That's right. Yes. So, yeah. So I was appointed. But I must say that in my life, my parents were really instrumental. You know, I have to say that my father just thought it was normal that his girls as well as his boys should do everything they could to gain the best education possible. We're very lucky.

MARY: Right. And the thing I found about all the women I've met in Africa, and Kenya and Uganda and now, just recently in Nigeria is that when we come there and we train them and empower them, they are so grateful, and that for all the hardships that women face in Africa, they are the most charming and energetic group of women that I can possibly hope to work with. And I've worked in Eastern Europe. I've worked in the Middle East, too, so I have lots of opportunities to meet women from throughout the world. But the African women, by and large, are just so darn much fun to work with.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for the call, Mary. Appreciate it.

MARY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you. Can I say thank you to the caller?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You can and you just did, so there you go. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the managing director of the World Bank, formerly Nigeria's first female finance minister and foreign minister. Also with us, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, a two-time Pulitzer winner, co-author of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." And Mary Robinson is with us, the former president of Ireland, the founder of...

Ms. ROBINSON: Can I just make one comment about this program?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. ROBINSON: We hope to empower women in the United States as well. You haven't a president yet. You don't have - women in Congress. You know, it was a little bit of - it's all needed abroad. I live in this country at the moment with pleasure, but we need more empowerment of women in the United States as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OKONJO-IWEALA: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

The - let's see if we can get - well, actually, Nick Kristof, I did want to ask you. You've spent some time in Iran in recent years. The government there recently stepped in to stop a woman from being stoned to death after being convicted of adultery. Is this representative of, A, beginnings of some solutions and, B, a wider problem?

Mr. KRISTOF: Well, it's certainly indicative of a wider problem. But, I mean, Iran is kind of a fascinating example of the way, I think, the Islamic world is - tends to be sort of more complex than we sometimes perceive it. I mean, Iran, in many ways, is a terrible place for women. A woman's testimony counts for only half of that of a man, for example. Women need permission to travel outside the country.

But on other hand, for example, in the courts where a woman's testimony is only half of that of a man, there is some women judges presiding. And there was a woman vice president. And women were - or account for, I think, something like 60 percent of university students. In the demonstrations a year ago, women were, you know, central to that protest movement. And, indeed, they, you know, they do kind of feel empowered, and I think that that is what is needed for civil society to bring women out of the margins and into the formal economy, into civil society and become part of this process of change and development.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. Kathy(ph), Kathy with us from Salisbury, Maryland.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

KATHY (Caller): Hi. We recently lived in Israel for seven months. And while we were there, we visited Petra, Jordan, and that's a large tourist area. So many young children were there selling trinkets and stuff. And my children, who are seven and nine, couldn't understand why especially these so many girls weren't in school. And when they asked them...

(Soundbite of baby crying)

I guess the girls spoke English, and they seemed like they didn't even know what they were talking about.

CONAN: Hmm.

KATHY: Furthermore, in reference to one of your other callers who said women in India have the opportunity to, you know, work outside of the home as well as at home, we had a tour guide in Bethlehem who said how hard his wife works that she gets up at 4 AM for prayers and teaches school, comes home, does all the chores, all the meals, because they have seven sons and it's unfortunate that she doesn't have a daughter to help her with all her work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It sounds that you've added to your family since you've come back from Petra.

KATHY: Actually, we took all three kids ages two, seven and nine. And I just picked them up from school, so they don't appreciate me being on the phone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, we'll try to get a response to your point and we'll let you go because you got...

KATHY: Okay.

CONAN: ...other priorities at the moment.

KATHY: Right. Right.

CONAN: Mary Robinson, there is any number of examples, not just of girls, but child labor is a major problem in many parts of the world.

Ms. ROBINSON: It is. It's necessary to address it by looking at the local circumstances. You got to give alternative incomes to families, and there's got to be an opportunity. And, yes, it's so important that children have a chance to stay in school, especially girls, and that girls aren't taken out of school when there's a family crisis, which also very often happens, a relative is ill, any excuse at all. And then girls are embarrassed going to the toilet, especially if they're thought to menstruate as, you know, they don't have privacy. And so there are so many issues. It's wonderful that there is a whole alliance now, around the girl child. That's another very positive development. Girls Count and a number of foundations, Nike, U.N. Foundations and others. And yes, you know, we know that in families, when a baby is born, it's a boy or a child...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: ...you know? And that's still the attitude in many places. And the girl feels it from the beginning. You know, if only I could be like my brothers. So you know, it's so much - and so we have a lot to do.

CONAN: Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, also founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, with us here in our New York bureau along with Nicholas Kristof, who's a columnist for The New York Times. His most recent book, co-authored, "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." Our thanks also to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, who joined us from the U.N.

When we come back, "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson." This is NPR News.

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