Nicholas Kristof Talks About Sex Trafficking, Rape and Raising Kids

Nicholas Kristof has found himself in some pretty tough spots. Brothels in Cambodia, refugee camps in Darfur, villages in Pakistan. Still, this last one might take the cake. "The night before I was in Ogden, Utah," says the New York Times' columnist, as if he couldn't quite believe he'd found himself in this remote outpost in the American West.

Kristof is on tour for his new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Thankfully tonight the globe-trotting journalist is in far more cosmopolitan San Francisco at the storied Fairmont Hotel.

Kristof is speaking at an event sponsored by the International Museum of Women (, a self-described "social change museum." In short the museum does a lot to help women around the world connect. Kristof is here as part of their speaker series and a new online exhibition, "Economica: Women and the Global Economy." It's all about ordinary women doing extraordinary things to lift themselves out of violence, discrimination and poverty.

Pretty inspiring stuff.

Sort of like Kristof's book.

But tonight "half the sky" is missing, so to speak. The other half being Sheryl WuDunn, who is married to the journalist. WuDunn not only co-wrote Half the Sky, she also shared a Pulitzer Prize with Kristof for their coverage of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Plus there's the marriage and three kids.

As it happens the first question for the foreign journalist had to do with domestic policy. "People always ask, how do you do all this and stay married?" he said to the audience later downstairs. Let's just say the books are easier to put to bed than the kids. "Books don't play you against each other," he said. Which the audience found pretty funny.

In person Kristof is as thoughtful and down-to-earth as he appears in his columns. For an hour and a half, he sat on stage across from Jane Wells, the President and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, genially answering questions about sex trafficking, "honor" killings, mass rape, genital cutting, and the awful things being done to women and girls in the most awful places on earth.

Take sex trafficking. Kristof said he was shocked by how prevalent the practice is. It's even worse today than it was during the Transantlantic Slave Trade. To pay the bills many girls are sold into slavery by their own families. And if a girl doesn't like it or is "uncooperative" she's killed. "This happens repeatedly in brothels in the 21st century," he said.

There were the 14-year-old and 15-year-old girls Kristof got to know at a brothel in Cambodia. He couldn't just leave them there, right? So he called the lawyers at the New York Times. Was there a policy against buying human slaves? Apparently not. So Kristof forked over $150 for each girl, the owner gave him a receipt, and he reunited the girls with their families. One thrived, the other returned to the brothel. "There is a happy outcome, but I'm going to make you read the book to find out," Kristof teased.

American teenagers sure could learn from these stories that there are far worse things than being grounded for missing curfew. For instance, being a 14-year-old girl in Ethiopia. There, if a man wants to marry a girl, he simply kidnaps and rapes her. But this girl was having none of it. With her father's support she tried to prosecute her attacker. Instead the man kidnapped her again and took her to a judge, who promptly married them.

This story has a happy ending, too. But you'll have to read the book. Or see the documentary in 2010. Or for you younger people who don't like to read or watch old people's TV, wait for the video game Kristof has hired some game designers to develop.

After his many travels Kristof has changed his mind about a few controversial issues. For one, he's not so sure that we should be telling countries in Africa, where genital mutilation of girls is the norm, to knock it off. Those cultural norms are most likely to change when the community intervenes itself.

He's also got a new perspective on sweatshops using child labor. As well-intentioned as such efforts are to end the practice, they can backfire. America's threat to punish Bangladesh led to girls being forced out of factories and into the streets. "It ended up being catastrophic for these girls," said Kristof.

And the better educated girls are, the better off their families and communities are. When women are educated they have fewer children and send them to school, they work and make a living. And the men who once forbid them to even leave the house alone often don't mind at all!

Still, it was hard not to notice the irony of an event devoted to the plight of oppressed women and girls being held in a 5-star hotel. "It's a little strange," noted a young woman at the reception named Elisabeth. Elisabeth told me she was a history teacher at San Francisco State and City College, where the budgets had just been slashed by something like 30 percent. She said she was glad she still had a job.

But at the Fairmont you couldn't even get a room! For a while I sat in the high-ceilinged marble lobby and watched the crowd. A parade of lawyers in dark suits, middle-aged women toting little dogs, tourists, and elderly couples strolled through. And a lot were carrying shopping bags. Talk about being out of touch! Don't these folks realize there's a Great Recession? When Kristof swept through the front door, no one even blinked at the world-famous journalist.

But that quickly changed. At the reception he was mobbed by the crowd of international policy wonks, academics, social activists, college students and gray-haired feminists. (Oh, and a few San Francisco philanthropists.) In the midst of the admiration fest, I managed to pull him aside for a few seconds to ask, how did he and WuDunn decide which stories to leave in, which to leave out?

Here's what Kristof, who was sipping a glass of red wine, said: "We wanted the book to be fundamentally hopeful. We wanted to show the power of women's work and have stories emphasizing empowerment and opportunity, not just tragedy."

Later his face lit up when Wales asked him about a certain Pakistani teenager. It started off as the usual horrific story about rape, but then turned into a Lifetime movie. Only in this case the plot was true.

The girl not only prosecuted the man who raped her, she went on to found a legal counseling center for women, build a school, launch a 24-hour-hotline to rescue kidnapped girls. And she wants to be a lawyer. Not everyone is thrilled about her work. She could be killed at any moment, said Kristof, but that doesn't seem to faze her.

As for his own kids, Kristof and WuDunn are educating them too. Last Christmas the whole family went to Cambodia and Thailand. (So much for skiing in Utah or visiting the Happiest Place on Earth!) At one point during the vacation they confronted a novel decision: Should they take the kids to go see the brothels Kristof had written about?

Oh, why not? they decided. It might reinforce to the kids how lucky they were. It might also encourage them to get with the cause.

As Kristof said of the effect on his 11- year- old daughter, "You may encounter Caroline out there trying to raise money for a school in Cambodia."