Sheryl WuDunn: Empowering Women Comes Down to Economics

Half the Sky makes the moral and economic case for ending practices that exploit women in the developing world

FE_120928_halfthesky.jpg
By + More

Nicholas Kristof fits the bill of swash-buckling journalist—pen and pad in hand, unbridled inquisition in speech—as he presses sex trafficker, negligent cop, and female genital "cutter" alike in the documentary film Half the Sky. But it is his wife and collaborator, Sheryl WuDunn, who provides the economic argument to the film's mission, which asserts that oppressive and exploitative practices aimed at women in developing countries must be eliminated. With financial experience as a Goldman Sachs adviser, a New York Times business manager, and now a managing director of a boutique investment bank, WuDunn explains how the abuse of women hurts everyone's bottom line.

Kristof and WuDunn wrote the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide in 2009, and it has now been adapted into a documentary, airing this Monday and Tuesday night on PBS. Kristof brings actresses Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Diane Lane, America Ferrera, and Olivia Wilde across the world—from a brothel exploiting young girls in India, to a female circumcision shop in Somaliland, to a village in Kenya where the women are in charge—in order to explore the challenges women face and to meet the people working to solve them. WuDunn spoke with U.S. News about why "culture" isn't an excuse, and what Americans can do to help.

Why does empowering women make sense economically?

What everyone wants in the developing world is a higher standard of living. And that comes down to basic materials, getting food and water, and a roof on top of you—and that comes down to jobs. Putting aside the moral challenge, one of the most efficient ways of solving these problems is to look at it from the economic point of view, and that means economic empowerment for women. The basic needs that you need to fulfill in order to do that is that you need to give them a job and a livelihood. That's what everybody wants, that's what we want here in the West as well, and that's what they want. They want just a better life.

Some of the practices the book and movie go after—like female circumcision—are characterized as "cultural," and people use "culture" and "tradition" to defend them. How do you deal with the cultural implications? How do you respond to the "well, it's cultural" defense?

What we try to show is that the cultural dimension of things shouldn't be an obstacle. It just is a matter of how you do it. Most often when you have a tradition, you have to break it apart and say, 'Is this offensive to human rights?' And if it is, then you have to think about 'Who are the stakeholders in it?,' and often there is economic stakeholder in a tradition. At the heart, it comes down to economics.

Why is it important to work with women on the ground, from these places, to solve these problems, rather than rely on outsiders?

That's the key. You just can't come from the outside. You have no idea how to navigate the workings of a society that we are not familiar with. You definitely need to work with the insiders. In fact, they are the key people, and you are just in the background, offering a resource as an adviser. A lot of the change will come from within, but they do need help, and often they're not as exposed to the outside world as we from the West are. So whether it's resources, money, skills, or advice, I think outsiders can play an extremely important role as well.

What do you hope the average person watching the documentary in their living room comes away with, and what can they do to get involved?

I do hope they come away with a greater awareness of the challenge, because in order to bring about change, you need a lot of people helping out in little ways. There's a billion different things they can do. Aside from just donating money, they can offer their skills up to some of the NGOs that are involved in this kind of endeavor. We list just a handful of them on our Web site, HalfTheSkyMovement.org, but by no means is it limited. It takes a lot of people helping out even in little ways—we're not asking anybody to give up their careers to go do something. We are really asking them to maybe set aside 10 minutes of their time each week to learn about an issue and try to figure out what they can contribute.