A New York Times columnist challenged a packed audience to help reverse gender discrimination during an author reading at the McMinnville Community Center on May 2.
Nicholas Kristof, co-author of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” used a series of photographs and personal anecdotes to help audience members grasp the magnitude of gender inequality and how giving women equal opportunities can positively impact the world.
Kristof identified the unfair treatment of girls and women as this century’s most dominant oppression.
“Just as in the 19th century it was slavery and the 20th century it was totalitarianism, in this century it is injustice to girls all around the world,” he said.
Kristof wrote “Half the Sky” with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. The book brings attention to women from around the world who have dealt with injustice and overcome their circumstances to provide lasting differences in their communities.
He challenged the audience to view small gestures of humanitarian aid as investments by sharing stories from his book, including an anecdote about Beatrice Biira, who was the first girl from her village in Uganda to earn a college degree from an American university.
Kristof said that Biira’s parents could not afford to send her to school because she was a girl and because they were peasants. Biira was limited to staying at home to do tasks around the house, preparing herself for a life of illiteracy and chores.
In Connecticut, a group of children from a local church decided to buy some livestock for African villagers through an Arkansas-based aid group for poor farming families. Biira’s family received one of the $120 goats and began selling the milk, which allowed the family to send Biira to school, Kristof said.
He said Biira proved to be an outstanding student and eventually traveled to America and received a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College. Biira plans to pursue a master’s degree before using her knowledge and skills to help further communities like the one she was raised in, Kristof said.
“There are no silver bullets in fighting poverty, but educating girls seems to give you a bang for your buck,” Kristof said. “Women are not the problem. They are the solution.”
Kristof also shared the horrific treatment of women from Oregon and from across the globe, highlighting the human trafficking in Portland and the prostitution in Cambodia.
He said that in 2004, he went through the process of buying two Cambodian girls from a brothel, which was viewed as a controversial decision.
“I got a written receipt for the girls,” Kristof said. “When you can get a receipt for buying a human in the 21st century, it should be disgraceful to us all.”
One of the girls who Kristof purchased was reunited with her family but ran back to the brothel because her addiction to methamphetamine was fed there, he said. He included that it is common practice for brothels to purposefully supply their prostitutes with addictive substances to ensure that they will remain in the business.
Senior Jordan Jacobo said the story of the girl returning to the brothel added a realistic angle to the problem of solving world issues such as prostitution.
“I was just shocked that you can buy people in the world today,” Jacobo said. “The example illustrated how it can be hard to help people and that it’s more complicated than just getting them out of the situation.”
Jacobo also said he appreciated Kristof’s humble attitude and personable presence.
“I got the chance to sit next to him at dinner, and he just seemed like a normal guy,” Jacobo said. “It’s empowering to think that he’s from Yamhill and that someone so influential could come from this area.”
Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and has published two other books with his wife. His work centers on social justice issues, including gender discrimination, global poverty and reports on Sudan and Darfur.
The Mac Reads event was co-sponsored by the Nicholson Library, the McMinnville Community Library, the Linfield English Department and Third Street Books.
Joanna Peterson/Culture editor
Joanna Peterson can be reached at email@example.com.