By Rachel Pasker
The topic of gender has been an idea present on the minds of many at St. Ambrose University this semester as it is the theme for the year, but one keynote speaker turned that idea into a pressing issue on Oct. 21 at the Galvin Fine Arts Center. Journalist Sheryl WuDunn spoke to a crowd of SAU students, faculty, staff and members of the community in the Allaret Auditorium where workers opened the wings and part of the balcony to fit everyone.
“The cause of our time is gender inequity,” WuDunn said.
Throughout her talk, WuDunn focused on this topic of gender inequality using stories and videos to illustrate her point, then pointed to the ways that anyone in America can help to put an end to it.
The first story WuDunn told as she walked around the stage was of an Ethiopian girl whose family faces poverty and shortages. However, the girl does not receive any of the extra food because it all goes to her brothers. WuDunn showed a picture of the girl who was so skinny that the audience could see every rib. Her brothers, on the other hand, look normal according to WuDunn.
“The most effective way to fight poverty is to educate women and girls,” WuDunn said.
The problem, WuDunn noted, was the number of challenges that women around the world face including trafficking and maternal mortality. To illustrate the idea of trafficking, WuDunn compared it to slavery in America saying that a slave would be sold for around $35,000. Girls today are kidnapped and sold for anywhere between $200 and $300 because they can be disposed of if they fight back and easily replaced. Maternal mortality poses a major challenge as WuDunn pointed out that around the world one woman dies every two minutes when trying to give birth. For those who survive childbirth, however, one in 20 are seriously injured in the process.
“It’s an inequality of opportunity,” WuDunn said. She noted that there is a growing inequality gap between the rich and poor and even quoted President Obama.
“The inequality gap is the defining problem of our time,” he said.
WuDunn then helped the audience to see how they could make a difference on this issue.
“In the changing world we live in do you think you can make a difference?” She asked.
Her answer was yes.
WuDunn then told the story of a little girl named Rachel from Seattle. Rachel heard about the problems in Ethiopia and decided she wanted to help the women. Instead of asking for birthday presents, Rachel asked that money be donated to Charity Waters. Her goal was to raise $300 by her birthday, but they were not getting close. Then, right before Rachel’s birthday, her family was involved in a car accident where Rachel was critically injured. Charity Waters told this story on its social media sites, so donations started coming in as people hear about what had happened. Then Rachel’s family made the decision to take their daughter off of life support, and Rachel died. When people on Charity Waters’ social media pages heard about her passing, the donations poured in. Rachel ended up raising 1.2 million dollars for Charity Waters, and all of it was sent to Ethiopia.
“We don’t all have to go halfway around the world,” WuDunn said. “We’re all busy, financially stretched, and have millions of reasons why we should get involved.”
After pointing out that the audience could start with small gestures to put an end to gender inequality and poverty, WuDunn pointed out that giving and donating stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. WuDunn and her husband had their brains scanned and found that people experience more intense pleasure when the give than when they receive. She also pointed out that volunteering for two or more organizations regularly can decrease the overall mortality risk more than working out four times a week.
“Think about what you want in your epitaph and work backwards,” WuDunn said. “If only you keep an open mind and an open heart, you can truly change a life.”
WuDunn and her husband, Nicholas Kristof, co-wrote the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The SAU First Year Experience office worked with the New Student Seminar classes and required that all incoming freshmen in the class read the book as part of the Exploring Gender theme for the year. WuDunn also showed a video clip for their new book, A Path Appears, which focuses on these issues in America.
WuDunn’s lecture was the culmination of a day-long social justice conference.
*Originally published Oct. 30, 2014, “The Buzz.”