A Local Pulitzer Winner on Violence Against Women

Sheryl WuDunn sounds busy. She reveals nothing about her schedule, but her voice clips along at an almost equestrian canter: rhythmic, vibrant, measured, but with a nearly imperceptible breathlessness. Her words have places to go, people to educate. You know just from hearing her that she speaks with her hands, not flamboyantly, but like an engineer or an architect, tracing her arguments in right angles, punctuating with the odd self-deprecating comment and a quick, bright laugh. And right away, you understand how this diminutive Chinese-American mother of three, a Westchester resident and a finance wiz with a propensity for big-picture thinking, found a formula to successfully draw attention to one of the world’s longstanding, silent atrocities. Through a combination of dogged reporting, a multimedia blitz, and direct appeal, WuDunn has helped shine the spotlight on the pervasive global tragedy of violence against women. 

The highlight of Sheryl WuDunn’s career as a journalist for the New York Times was her coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989, for which she and her husband, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, won a joint Pulitzer, the first married couple—and WuDunn, the first Asian American—to do so in journalism. But as the New York City native spent those early days of June counting the bodies in the square, she could hardly have imagined that she’d soon stumble onto a tragedy whose casualties would dwarf the numbers at Tiananmen, culminating in a story that spanned the globe.

It wasn’t long after Tiananmen that WuDunn and Kristof, traveling in the Chinese countryside, stumbled across a quiet little demographic study that made the following shocking conclusion: Every year in China,  roughly 39,000 baby girls died because they weren’t privileged enough to receive the same medical attention that baby boys did—39,000 baby girls every year who weren’t considered important enough to save.

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And they were only a fraction of the 30 million female babies missing from the Chinese population for a host of reasons, some of them presumably aborted after sonograms revealed their gender to parents who preferred boys. It was lethal discrimination. WuDunn and Kristof would later dub it “gendercide.” And, because of how often it was happening, no one was writing about it.

“If something happens every day,” says WuDunn, “it’s not news.” The systematic annihilation of females in the Chinese population, simply because they were female, was too far removed from the Western consciousness, and far too common in China, to merit media attention anywhere. 


They wrote about it for the Times, “but we were writing about a number of things,” says WuDunn, “so we moved on.” WuDunn and Kristof would write about women from time to time in the years that followed, dedicating a chapter each in their books China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power (1994) and Thunder From the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia (2001). Kristof would also witness violence in his travels for the Times, in the form of sex trafficking and sex slavery of young girls in Cambodia, and discrimination in Japan and Korea. But the couple thought of this as primarily an Asian problem.

Then they moved back to New York, settling into a home in Westchester after being impressed by the County’s school systems (WuDunn requested her town not be printed in this article, due to the sensitive nature of Kristof’s writing, which often tackles terrorism).  “We looked around Westchester, and just thought, ‘My goodness, the value is just so much better than the City,’” says WuDunn. “You get trees and grass and space, and Metro-North is much nicer than the subways.” In 2000, WuDunn left the editorial side of the paper, working in circulation and then strategic planning at the Times, while Kristof continued traveling, this time heading to Africa, where discrimination against women takes the form of genital cutting, beatings, sky-high maternal mortality rates, and rape as a tool of terrorism. The evidence was piling up that discrimination against women—violent, often fatal discrimination—was an urgent, global crisis, and not something endemic to one particular tribe or culture.

“We started teasing out similarities, did a little bit of research, and then thought, ‘Wow, this is worth writing about,’” says WuDunn. 

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So, in September 2009, after years of traveling the globe, meeting with young girls and women who had undergone the horrors of sexual slavery, trafficking, rape, physical assaults, genital cutting, acid attacks, and burnings; after researching demographic studies, health policies, and meeting with aid organizations, WuDunn and Kristof published Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The title is taken from a Chinese proverb: Women hold up half the sky.

In the book’s introduction, they lay out their agenda very clearly: “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.” Their thesis was simple and two-fold. First, like slavery and totalitarianism before, in the 21st century the “paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.” 

To support their assertion, WuDunn and Kristof compiled a mass of statistical data, much of it horrifying: More girls killed in the last 50 years, because they were girls, than men killed in all the battles of the 20th century. Between 60 and 101 million women missing in the global population, with another two million disappearing worldwide every year because of discrimination. And perhaps most disturbing, the fact that women between ages 15 and 44 were more likely to be maimed or die from violence inflicted by men than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. 

The grisly numbers are overwhelming, but for WuDunn, they were instrumental to the very existence of the book, because they clearly depicted the tragedy while providing a level of credibility that raw emotion couldn’t have. 

“[The impetus to write the book] really came out of the research,” says WuDunn,  “which is what I think makes our book so different, that we did not start with the passion, and I think that’s really important.”

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All that data found its human context as WuDunn and Kristof filled the book with profiles of women who had seen the worst of humanity in the brothels of India and Cambodia, in the fistula hospitals of Africa, and in their homes around the world, and had come out the other side not victims, but as heroines of their own stories. Each woman was creating a better life for her children, and often for scores of other women and children, by setting up small businesses, health services, and NGOs to fight poverty and violence. 

WuDunn’s composed, slightly academic tone while discussing large-scale human rights atrocities can be a little unnerving; it’s easy to think of her as callous or detached at times. Her friend and colleague Maro Chermayeff, executive producer for the Half the Sky movement, and director of the PBS documentary series of the same name, describes it as “even-handed,” and chalks it up to experience.

“She’s seen a lot,” says Chermayeff. “Part of that is not to say that [WuDunn and Kristof] are jaded, because I don’t think they are, but they’ve seen a lot. To really unseat them emotionally is hard.”

And though Kristof is more emotionally demonstrative, says Chermayeff, when it comes to pure, kinetic energy, WuDunn is a complete foil for her husband’s methodic approach. “She’s spinning on a faster plate than he is. Their focus points are very different.”


WuDunn’s ability to detach can be an advantage when talking in terms of global crises. “Your role [as a journalist] is to be there and tell the story and put the story in a relevant and trustworthy context,” notes Chermayeff. “I think it brings something you always have to have—perspective.”

Which is how WuDunn can remain positive. “Of course you have your own emotions and you feel terrible about it,” she says. “It’s a horrible thing, and so worth writing about. But we also realized that it was very important to be hopeful. Luckily we saw people who were doing things about it.”

United to these stories of courage, which were largely the domain of Kristof, who is famous among friends for his tenacity and zeal for on-the-ground reporting, were WuDunn’s business knowledge, cool head, and ability to see the bigger picture. 

“Sheryl’s very involved in thinking about things strategically,” says Chermayeff. “She has a very large capacity for thematic concepts; she’s very solutions-driven, and she’s always looking at things through a different lens.” 

WuDunn drew from her business background to explore and expand on the solutions that organizations were implementing in these countries, specifically in the areas of microlending and microsavings. “I think that made for a really great combination,” she says, “because we have the moral outrage, and yet we also have the solutions. I think that journalism in general is so focused with the problems, and rarely do [journalists] come up with solutions, and I think that’s what made our book very different.” 

Thus, the second tenet of their thesis: “Women aren’t the problem, but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.” For WuDunn, the education and economic liberation of women in the developing world is a means to huge economic growth for entire nations. 

Based on the moral imperative alone, it’s easy to see why WuDunn and her husband might go beyond simply reporting the facts, or writing touching profiles of battered women, and reach out directly to the reader to help. But WuDunn is quick to shut down any notion that she’s an activist. “I think what was different for us is that, as news journalists you’re not allowed to take a stance, and so I think we decided, partly because I was no longer a journalist and Nick was no longer a news journalist, that we could take a stance without sort of sacrificing the quality of journalism.” 

She may eschew the term “activist,” and though she and Kristof have not established a foundation or started an NGO, there’s no question that what they do goes beyond reporting. That’s how, after all, they became modern slave owners. While in Cambodia reporting for the book, Kristof bought freedom for two young women trapped in sexual slavery; several years ago, the couple financed a school in Cambodia to help facilitate girls’ education. Both these incidents are described in the book, but WuDunn insists that that’s not what Half the Sky is about.

“There are people who have spent their lives working in this area, and we didn’t,” she says. “We were journalists covering lots of different things, and we just happened to stumble on this. We’re sort of the messenger, rather than doing anything creative.” Her job, as she sees it, is to create awareness on a broad level, and so the book was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Within weeks of publication, the book shot up the New York Times Best Sellers list. By that time, WuDunn had been out of journalism for two years and had moved into the banking industry, first as a vice president at Goldman Sachs investment management division and then as senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities. But even prior to publication, WuDunn and Kristof knew they needed to reach a broader audience than those who’d buy the book, and plans were already in the works for a documentary special on public television. 

“We know that book reading isn’t America’s favorite pastime,” says WuDunn. “While we’re delighted with the response [to the book], we know that to reach more people you need to reach them where they want to be reached. And so film was obviously a natural.”

That’s where Chermayeff and her team at Show of Force production company came in, rethinking the book for film, working with WuDunn and Kristof on additional reporting and filming. The two-part series aired on PBS in October 2012, and garnered a lot of attention for its unabashed and acknowledged recruitment of actress-advocates like Meg Ryan and Olivia Wilde into the film to help draw attention to the stories of these women. 

But the film still wasn’t enough, at least not as far as WuDunn and Kristof were concerned. From the beginning of the project, they knew they’d have to expand beyond print and film and into that flagship of Western progress, Facebook. 

WuDunn and Kristof teamed up with Show of Force, Games for Change, and other partners to produce “Half the Sky Movement: The Game” as well as three Java-based mobile games. Though originally intended to launch at the same time as the film, funding problems delayed the release of the Facebook game until March of this year. The game, in which players’ actions unlock funding from sponsors, which then goes to NGOs like Room to Read for schoolbooks for female students, hit one million players and over $400,000 in direct and sponsored funding by the end of July.

But WuDunn is already hard on the heels of other projects. She and Kristof are currently working on a new book about innovative ways to make change in the world. In addition to her work at Mid-Market Securities, she’s starting a new firm, a double bottom line focused group that will focus on helping entrepreneurs who are founding for-profit businesses with a social mission. 

In a 2010 Guernica interview, WuDunn spoke hopefully of the closeness of a “tipping point” in the world of development, an acknowledgment among those in the field that women and girls were a critical force in the battles against poverty and terrorism. Three years later, is she still as hopeful?

“This is an ongoing battle,” says WuDunn, “and I don’t know how easy it is to measure.” But, she says, we’re definitely closer than we were. “All across, up and down the ladder, in government, in corporations, women and girls are now so much more the focus of corporate social responsibility programs. There’s a lot of money going into girls in school. I just think it’s great. It’s almost becoming normal.”

» For More from the November issue, click here. 

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