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Women are key to ending poverty

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Poor countries have been among the hardest hit by the global recession, in part because they can't really afford the bailouts and stimulus packages that others can. For those who want to help, it might be beneficial to think about targeting your aid, to women and girls in particular. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, write about that in their new book. It's called "Half the Sky." Nick Kristof explained why women can be the key to lifting families and even whole communities out of poverty.

Nicholas Kristof: You simply can't develop an economy if you're only using half of your human resources. And a second factor is that when you educate people, and they have higher earning capacity, then -- and I'm a little embarrassed as a guy to admit this -- but men are more likely to spend their higher earnings on things like alcohol, tobacco. While women, when they have higher earning power, there are a whole bunch of studies that show they are more likely to use that money to invest in their kids and to start small businesses.

Ryssdal: Is it more, though, Sheryl, than just building schools and getting girls in classes?

Sheryl WuDunn: Oh, absolutely. I mean, education is the beginnings of a foundation, but it's not a panacea. It really has to be that the women have to be welcomed into the formal labor force. Their resources can really convert the household economy, the local village economy, the county economy. Then if you aggregate it all up, the national economy.

Ryssdal: And one of the things, Sheryl, that you guys key on in this book, and others have as well, is this phenomenon of microfinance -- small loans and building small businesses that way. Why is it so targeted at women so successfully?

WuDunn: You know the dirty little secret of poverty is not so much that they don't bring in income, it's that they don't spend well. And Nick talked about how men spend versus women spend when they control the household purses. The same goes for lending, how money is deployed. So women when they get microloans, the women meet in groups and they pool their money and lend it to one of the women. And women tend to come up with very inventive ideas. For instance, one of the women we talk about in the book, started an embroidery business. And she was really good at it. When she couldn't fill the orders from the merchants, she actually started hiring everyone else in the village, and she became the local tycoon.

Ryssdal: How does economic empowerment, Nick, turn to social empowerment and then eventually, I imagine, political rights?

KRISTOF: The woman that Cheryl mentioned in Pakistan who had been a beneficiary of microfinance, she got a $65 loan that she used to build up her embroidery business. And until she got that embroidery business going, her husband was beating her every day. He didn't particularly want to educate her two daughters. And he was thinking about getting a second wife on the thought that the second wife might bear him sons. And then because his wife was bringing in money, and helping to support the household, he really was forced to see women in a new light. And you began to see values changing, not only in that household but in the broader village.

Ryssdal: You know, Nick, these women have obviously decided to take responsibility for themselves, to get themselves out of their situation and do what they can. Who else is responsible for helping these women and these girls? Is it local governments, aid groups, Western countries?

KRISTOF: I'd say all of the above. You know, certainly local governments should be doing much, much more. But the point is that whether or not those other actors do the things that they should, we can take various steps that will truly make a difference for girls or women around the world.

Ryssdal: This book is advocacy journalism. You are openly advocating that we as a society take up the cause of these women. What can we do?

WUDUNN: If you have a million dollars, of course, you can do a lot. If you have $7 you can go and pay for school supplies for a girl in Cambodia to continue school for a year. That means a lot to that girl. Decide what your foe is. Do you care more about sex trafficking? Do you care about maternal mortality? Do you care about violence against women? Choose your foe. And then choose the country that you want to be involved with. Finally, choose your organization, choose your partner. Which organization would you like to work with. You know, you just browse 15 minutes in each of those steps and you can come up with a good start.

Ryssdal: The most recent book by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof is called "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." Thank you both very much.

WUDUNN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

KRISTOF: Thank you, Kai.

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