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Meredith Holt, Published October 05 2012

Author WuDunn: Empower women to reduce poverty

MOORHEAD – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn say oppression of women and children worldwide is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.

The couple use extraordinary tales of struggle in their 2009 best-selling book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” and their documentary of the same name to get their message across.

Among those profiled is a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries during childbirth. Both escaped their ordeals and went on to give back to their communities.

“The key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential,” said WuDunn, who previously worked for The New York Times.

She told an audience Wednesday at the Moorhead campus of Minnesota State Community and Technical College that a little help can have a big impact on the lives of women and children abroad.

There she told the story of a poor rural Chinese girl who was able to continue her education with the help of donations. After attending vocational school, she was hired as an accountant at a local factory, helped her classmates get jobs and sent money back to her parents.

“What we had was a natural experiment in girls’ education,” WuDunn said.

The Half the Sky movement, named for the Chinese saying “Women hold up half the sky,” aims to educate and empower women with the goal of achieving gender equality worldwide.

“We think that one of the most effective ways to fight poverty – and to even fight terrorism – is to educate girls and bring women into the formal labor force,” WuDunn said.

She said education also has an effect on overpopulation, a consistent contributor to poverty.

“There is research that shows that if a girl is educated and then she carries that education through to adulthood, she tends to get married later on in life, she tends to have kids later on in life, and she tends to have fewer kids, and those fewer kids that she has, she tends to raise them in a more enlightened way,” she said.

Throughout her presentation, the senior managing director for Mid-Market Securities tied the five major focuses of the multimedia project – sex trafficking, maternal mortality, sexual violence, microfinance and girls’ education – to economic development.

“Women are part of the solution, not the problem,” she said.

Both episodes of the four-hour “Half the Sky” television series, which aired recently on PBS, are available for streaming online at http://video.pbs.org.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590