Two-thirds of the world’s 758 million illiterate people are women. Project Literacy, a global movement campaigning for advances in literacy levels worldwide, has compiled a body of research called the Alphabet of Illiteracy which demonstrates how illiteracy underpins almost every major problem humanity faces, from A-Z. Many of these issues relate directly to women: C is for Child Brides, F is for FGM, G is for Gender Inequality, X is for X-Rated. These are all themes that were explored in Half the Sky: How to Change the World by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
Coinciding with International Literacy Day, Emma Watson’s book club, Our Shared Shelf, is currently reading Half The Sky. Here she poses her questions to the authors.
Emma Watson: Since its publication seven years ago, there has been tremendous headway in the fight for women’s rights, though there is still much work to be done. What new challenges have surfaced since you wrote the book? Which threat has evolved the most since the book’s publication?
Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn:
First, Emma, thanks so much for recommending Half the Sky and for your work on these issues. We really do feel the progress, and that’s partly because so many more people are aware of abuses now than a decade ago.
If we were rewriting Half the Sky, we might say more about challenges in the West. We focused on the developing world because that’s where the challenges are greatest, but we truly do face enormous gender inequities in America and Europe as well. Activists tend to focus on issues like equal pay or equal representation on boards, and those are real, but two of the most important neglected issues are domestic violence and human trafficking. In the U.S. alone, three women are murdered each day by their boyfriends or husbands, while some 10,000 girls under 18 are trafficked each year into the sex trade. So we definitely want to see a continued focus on global issues, but we also don’t have the credibility to tell other countries to clean up their act unless we do more at home.
EW: According to EqualityNow.org, sexual exploitation and the trafficking of women and children is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, despite laws in 134 countries criminalizing it. Why do you think it continues to rise so relentlessly, and what do you think is the single most effective solution for fighting it? Is there one?
NK & SW:
We’d be wary of saying that sex trafficking is increasing globally, because we just don’t have good enough data to have a clear sense of trends. But trafficking is certainly widespread, and that’s partly because society looks down on the victims and because they are usually the most voiceless of people: poor, female and powerless. There is also the myth that this is a victimless crime, that women who sell sex are doing so willingly. Yes, some do, but millions do not, and a woman in a brothel may smile because if she doesn’t meet her quota for the day she’ll be beaten. There is no silver bullet to fight sex trafficking, but one experiment in Cebu, the Philippines, suggests that training police and targeting the problem of trafficking children really does reduce the number of kids being raped in brothels each day. Likewise, in places like America, it makes sense to go after the pimps and traffickers rather than prosecute the women and girls — who in fact are typically the victims. Finally, we’re sympathetic to the Swedish model, which prosecutes the customers and thus aims to reduce the demand for commercial sex that drives human trafficking.
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