Sheryl WuDunn is an author, lecturer and the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize. She leads the social investing consultancy TripleEdge. Her new book, “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” focuses on the challenges of women around the world.
WuDunn starts her talk with images from rural China in the 1990s. She tells us the story of a young woman who was pulled from school at age 13 because the school fees were too high. As it happens, the young woman was the best pupil in the school, and she continued traveling to the school and learning by sitting outside the door.
WuDunn wrote about the young woman in the New York Times and started getting donations from New York Times readers, including a $10,000 dollar donation which paid for her middle school and vocational school… and provided scholarships for all the other girls in schools. She went on to vocation school in accountancy, and now supports her family with the money she sends home. She describes this as a controlled experiment in the power of resources applied to women’s lives.
If the central challenge of the 19th century was slavery, and of the 20th century was totalitarianism, the challenge of the 21st century, WuDunn tells is, is achieving gender equity. Demographers tell us that there are 100 million missing women in the global population. “More girls were discriminated to death than all the people killed on battlefields in the 20th century.” In India, girls from ages 1 through 5 die at a 50% higher rate than boys – there’s less discrimination when they’re being breast fed, but when parents feed them solid food, they get far less than boys.
Poverty isn’t just about income, WuDunn tells us: it’s about spending. People living on under $2 a day spend, on average 2% on education. The same people spend 20% towards tobacco, beer, and prostitutes.
When Bill Gates visited Saudi Arabia, he was asked if the country could become one of the top 10 in global technology. Looking at the mandatory gender split in the audience, he said, “If you’re not fully utilizing the talent in the country, you’re not going to be in the top ten.”
Of obstacles to gender equality, WuDunn sees sex trafficking as the most serious. In the 19th century, slaves were worth about $40,000 in today’s dollars. Girls trafficked for sex are sold for a few hundred dollars. They’re more disposeable than African slaves were.
Women aren’t just sold into slavery – they’re victims of diseases that are deadly and debilitating. She tells us the story of an Ethiopian woman who experienced an obstetric fistula as the result of a pregnancy when she was 13. The village she lived with concluded that she was cursed, and put her into a hut without a door to be killed by hyenas. She fought them off with a stick, and crawled 30 miles to a village where a foreign missionary lived. The missionary brought her to a hospital in Addis Ababa where the fistula was repaired. She’s now a nurse – she’s part of the solution, not part of the problem.
When girls are educated, they marry later, have fewer kids, and educate them better. WuDunn recommends microlending, telling the story of a $65 loan to a Pakistani woman to open an embroidery business. The woman ended up hiring her husband to transport goods to market. They’re educating all three of their daughters, because education is what’s really important. Referencing Heifer International, she tells about a Ugandan girl who was able to go to school because a donated goat gave the family extra income. She was eventually about to come to the US on scholarship and recently graduated from UConn. At her graduation, she declared, “I am the luckiest girl alive because of a goat.”
WuDunn acknowledges critics of development aid like Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, but urges us not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Instead, she tells us that, once you’ve taken care of your basic needs, one of the few things that can elevate your happiness is contributing to a cause larger than yourself.” In other words, giving money is a way to make ourselves happier.
She closes with the story of an American aid worker in Darfur, who witnessed horrible atrocities. She finally broke down when she came home and saw a birdfeeder, realizing that Americans can care not only for ourselves but for wild birds. With great fortune comes great responsibility – we’ve won the birth lottery, and it’s our job to use the blessings we’ve received to help the world.