Women Turning Oppression Into Opportunity Tuesday marks the start of Women's History Month. In the first in a series of conversations with women who have made a difference with their lives or their work, host Michel Martin speaks with Sheryl WuDunn. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. WuDunn discusses her book, which profiles extraordinary women who overcame oppressive situations to become successful entrepreneurs.

Women Turning Oppression Into Opportunity

Women Turning Oppression Into Opportunity

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Tuesday marks the start of Women's History Month. In the first in a series of conversations with women who have made a difference with their lives or their work, host Michel Martin speaks with Sheryl WuDunn. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. WuDunn discusses her book, which profiles extraordinary women who overcame oppressive situations to become successful entrepreneurs.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

The protests and the violence in Libya are continuing, which has led to a jump in oil prices, which has led to a jump in the price of gas. We'll talk about how and why what is going on half a world away is affecting what's left in our wallets here. That is later in the program.

But we start today with the first of our Women's History Month conversations, where we'll be talking with women who's made a difference. Today, we're talking with a woman who, along with her husband and co-author, has changed the way many policymakers think about what it takes to end poverty and increase human dignity around the world.

MARTIN: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." And she's with us now from New York. Welcome.

SHERYL WUDUNN: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You tell the story in the introduction of how you and your husband, Nicholas Kristof, started thinking about the role of women and the treatment of women as a human rights issue. And you talk about the fact that you two had covered Tiananmen Square, the uprising at Tiananmen Square where somewhere between 400 and 800 people had died, as of course many people remember, it was a story that transfixed the world in the same way that the uprisings across the Middle East are captivating the world.

But then you said the following year you came across this obscure demographic study that talked about a human rights violation that claimed tens of thousands of lives, but then nobody talked about. Could you talk about that?

WUDUNN: We were extremely horrified about what happened in Tiananmen Square. But in the ensuing year, as we started really traveling the countryside, we discovered that there were a lot of other horrible things happening to women that not even a word had been written about. And basically, it is a combination of female infanticide and abortion and a number of other things that led to the deaths or the non-births of females all around China.

So that was horrifying for us and we wrote about that and we thought it was a phenomenon in China. And over the years, after we left China, we discovered, this is actually much larger than China, it's going on around the world.

MARTIN: In fact, you write that the moral challenge in this century is the struggle for gender equality in the developing world. Why do you say that?

WUDUNN: Absolutely. Well, so a lot of people think that might be an exaggeration. It's a broad statement. Now, demographers are saying that throughout the world over the several decades, there are probably somewhere between 60 million to 100 million missing females around the world. And these are really hardcore demographers. One has a Nobel Prize, so they are very well- credentialed demographers who are saying this. It's pretty incredible.

MARTIN: When you first started making this argument, how did people react to this?

WUDUNN: I think that people who are in development know that this is really a challenge. That women really have been under nurtured, underrepresented, basically discriminated to death against. However, it had been in the domain of this sort of arcane area of development. And what we're basically saying is that this is a mainstream issue. This is the world. And I think that people are responding to this positively because they realize that it is. When you talk about 60 million to 100 million missing females in the world, that's something to stand up about.

MARTIN: The book documents in each chapter attacks on women and girls because they are women and girls. And some of these things also affect boys and men too. But girls and women are the primary victims. You open the book with a girl you met in rural Cambodia. She was 15 when you met her. She thought she was going to a job and then she was trafficked into sex slavery. Can you just tell us a little bit about her story?

WUDUNN: Absolutely. This is Srey Rath. And she was an energetic, bubbly woman, smiling all the time. At 13 she was kidnapped, basically by a neighbor. She was transferred from her village, which was in the middle of Cambodia and brought to Phnom Penh, where it was an unfamiliar environment and she was sold to a brothel. And she was forced to work seven hours a day. She didn't get paid a dime and she also hardly was fed anything because they didn't want her to get fat.

And at night, she was forced to stay in a tiny room with other girls and they were forced to wear very little because they didn't want the girls to escape. So, finally, they conceived of a way to escape. They cloaked themselves in sheets, in the bed sheets and they went out of their apartment.

They convinced another person in another apartment, who was unassociated with this, to let them go out his window. And they climbed down the window and escaped that way. So then Srey Rath, she was very lucky because then she was able to recover. She started a business. I mean, she's supporting her whole family.

MARTIN: Well, you do have a number of stories in the book where you talk about women who've overcome these incredibly disturbing situations. But one of the things in the book that caught my eyes, you say that sex slavery has actually worsened in recent decades. How is that possible? Why?

WUDUNN: I know, it's pretty remarkable. If you look at the peak of the slave trade, probably in the 1770s, 1780s, there were maybe 80,000 slaves who were transferred from Africa to the New World, 80,000 per year. Now, according to State Department statistics, international trafficking of people, not, you know, slaves of all kinds, 800,000 per year. That's not even including the people like Srey Rath who were trafficked within their borders. So that's how bad it is.

And why is this happening? Well, you know, with globalization there's global demand. And because there is still a demand for these services, it continues to happen.

MARTIN: You also talk about the fact that many people might assume that sex trafficking is something that, you know, men do to women. But you also point out that women are complicit in this in many parts of the world, even to the point of women sometimes prostituting their daughters, that this goes on generation after generation. Why?

WUDUNN: Women are imbibing the social norms of the times. And those norms include the business of the sex trade. So, often the brothels are run by women and they actually punish the women and do horrific things to them just as much as the men do. Men are also, believe me, they are also in this trade, too. So it's not just women. But, you know, in some countries, up to 30 to 50 percent of the perpetrators can be women.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about gender equality as a human rights issue. We're speaking with Sheryl WuDunn. She's co-author of "Half of the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."

You know, we've just scratched the surface in our conversation of some of the things that you document in the book. You document people who just operate with impunity in some parts of the world, for example, the remarkable story of a girl from India where she lived. There was a man who basically was the terrorist of the slum who did whatever he wanted to do to whomever he wanted to do it, including once, you know, raping a woman after her wedding and the police did nothing.

In many of the stories you tell, you do talk about how one woman, a group of women managed to kind of rise up and overcome. So I want to talk about what some of the strategies that you've seen that have helped change some of the dire situations that you've talked about.

WUDUNN: Well, in the case of Usha, that you mentioned, for instance, Usha, who was living in India in a tiny little town, and she was from an extremely educated family. She basically was about to go off to hotel management school. She was that talented. But partly because she was so educated, she was much more enlightened about what was going on.

And so, in that case at the wedding, when her neighbor was raped, she stood up to the local tough, Aku(ph), his name, local tough, local gangster. And she basically was able to mobilize against him. So it takes a social entrepreneur like Usha to really overcome the morays.

And it's happening around the world. It's just not happening enough. And so if we can encourage through Western encouragement and help and resources, we can encourage these social entrepreneurs to really take the next step.

MARTIN: Another method that you've talked about that opens up opportunities for women is microcredit. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

WUDUNN: Yes. Microcredit is a really interesting opportunity. And I know that in many ways micro-lending has gotten a bad rep and an industry that is so broad base, so global is going to have a few bad apples. But that function is not going to go away. And the need and the supply is not going to go away. But it's critical. It's - micro savings is one of the more important parts of microfinance.

And I'll tell you very briefly about one woman, lives in Burundi, she and her husband live in a place where she used to have to get approval from her husband before she could leave even the property. And she wasn't allowed to touch cash. So she had been encouraged to join this microsavings group in town, which means that basically each woman brings a dime to the circle of women villagers together and they decide each week or each month who all the money would go to. And then one month it went to Goretti, this woman's name, and Goretti decided to invest it in a potato crop.

She spent, like, $2.50 on the potatoes and she then harvests them over the season and she got $7 back. So she not only paid off her $2.50, but she also then took the remaining profit and she invested in a banana beer business. That's because she saw that her husband drank banana beer three times a week. So she knew that that would sell. And now she's the local tycoon.

MARTIN: You talk about the fact that in many parts of the world, women have made an incredible journey already. You talk about how in China, for example, a century ago, there were traditions of foot binding, child marriage, female infanticide that rural girls didn't even get real names. They would be, like, number two sister because they weren't deemed, you know, important enough to have their own name. To a point where, you know, women are making great strides.

But some of the situations you describe are just truly horrific and the question that I have for you, is change happening fast enough?

WUDUNN: Oh, change is definitely happening step-by-step, individual by individual, woman by woman. There is great change. I mean, that's how change happened in China. There's no foot binding anymore. That's what's really remarkable. It used to be 100 years ago China was the worst place to be born female for the reasons that you gave, Michel.

So, change really can happen. And if you focus on, I think about this little parable, that's a Hawaiian parable, the story of this boy who is walking down a beach in Hawaii and he sees it's just covered with starfish. He picks up a starfish and throws it back into the water. He picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. And along comes a man who looks at this vast beach full of starfish and says, boy, look at all these starfish, you can't possibly make a difference. And the boy looks at him and then picks up a starfish and throws it back in the water and said, it made a big difference to that one. And I think that's the focus.

MARTIN: That actually leads me to my final two questions. I wanted to ask you, Sheryl, you are also a parent. And when you're cheering on your kids at their soccer games, when you are debating with them over whether they can have another pair of sneakers or something like that, which is the things that all parents do, how do you stand it when you know that in some part of the world, some girl is being sold to a brothel. Some girl is being raped as a consequence of conflict in her community. How do you stand it?

WUDUNN: Well, I think that everybody here in the U.S. shouldn't stand for it and they really should write to their congressperson and say, this is something that I care about. When the moveon.org galvanizes people to do something, they should join. There are many ways that people throughout the U.S. can help. And I think that if they are moved by some of the tragedies and the challenges that women face around the world, then they can take a step. And we can solve this together.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, tell us about the title.

WUDUNN: "Half the Sky."

MARTIN: Yeah, where does the title come from?

WUDUNN: It's from a Chinese saying, women hold up half the sky. And that's exactly how we think it should be and so we thought it was an appropriate title.

MARTIN: Sheryl WuDunn is co-author of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." She happens to be the first Asian-American to win one of journalism's top prizes, the Pulitzer Prize. She's now a senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities, which offers investment services to middle market companies, including those found and run by women. And she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Sheryl WuDunn, thank you so much for joining us.

WUDUNN: Thank you, Michel, it was a pleasure.

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