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Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

How this power couple is rewriting the global script for women's rights Add to ...

The first gusts of spring brought a rare sighting this week when Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn blew in for the inaugural Bluma Lecture at the Toronto Public Library. Although their names are common on lists of leading global thinkers, and they are widely admired as husband-and-wife co-authors of Half the Sky – an influential book turned worldwide movement to improve women’s rights – the public rarely gets to see them together.

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They are an odd couple. WuDunn is effortlessly glamorous in her mid-50s, her movements and her voice both delicate and assured, her gold jewellery glinting, looking every inch the top-flight international banker she is. New York Times columnist Kristof is a typically scruffy example of the veteran reporter: background material visually, with a messy sheaf of papers under his arm and a beat-up computer on his lap.

But the partnership has been productive, not only with a Pulitzer Prize shared for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests – not to mention three children – but most recently with the tremendous momentum of Half the Sky, published in 2009.

“We argue in the book that the central moral challenge for our time is the inequity that women and girls face around the world,” WuDunn explains. “In the same way that slavery was in the 19th century a huge moral challenge, we think this is the challenge of our time.”

Their once-radical recipe for achieving widespread social change by empowering women has been widely shared. New advocates include big oil companies, banks and Wal-Mart, which has established programs to train women in developing countries as suppliers.

“I think we were pushing on an open door with Half the Sky,” adds Kristof, looking up from his laptop. “There has been a growing feeling among aid organizations, and among governments both in the rich world and the poor world, that a focus on women is where you get leverage to bring about all kinds of changes.”

As a prime example, he cites the Canadian government’s recent embrace of maternal health as a prime focus of its foreign aid. “Maternal mortality used to be this completely invisible issue because the women who die tend to be those in poor countries, often the most voiceless women in those poor countries, and Canada and Norway both took on that issue,” he says.

More Canadian content: WuDunn’s maternal grandfather, Ernest C. Mark, was a leading citizen of the Chinese-Canadian community, “unofficial mayor of Chinatown” in Toronto and ultimately publisher of the Shing Wah Daily News, once the largest Chinese daily in North America.

WuDunn was smart enough to leave journalism for banking, but Kristof is hanging tough. “I love the platform, I love the chance to make a difference and just love the beauty of writing,” he says. “On the other hand, we don’t have a business model for the future. … It is a kind of scary time in journalism.”

But what this power couple really wants to talk about before their evening lecture at the Toronto Reference Library is video games – one in particular, which they launched this week. Already a documentary, Half the Sky is now also a video game that boldly proposes to make philanthropy fun. Built in collaboration with games giant Zynga and corporate sponsors, the game challenges players to raise funds for women and children, as well as their own awareness of the issues, while navigating a virtual adventure.

“It blends virtual reality with real-world action,” WuDunn says, “and that’s never been done before with a social-impact game.” When players work to achieve a goal – buying books for an imaginary school, for example – corporate sponsors make matching contributions of real books to real schools.

One thing Kristof and WuDunn do not do is solicit funds for their own programs. Instead, they use the Half the Sky Movement to spread awareness and raise funds for a broad array of groups working on issues affecting girls and women.

“We run into all these people who have read the book and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve read your book and it’s changed my life, I quit my job and I’m leaving next week for Uganda or Peru and I’m so excited,’ ” Kristof says. “And usually their parents are standing behind them just glaring.”

Neither WuDunn nor Kristof have quit their jobs yet, although both are currently on leave to write their next book. Like Half the Sky, it will “focus on ways you can make a difference and why it’s important,” according to WuDunn. As much as the cause has progressed since their movement began, the couple has no illusions about the challenges that remain.

“This is the kind of thing that’s going to take a long time to bring about any kind of huge transformation where you can say, ‘We’re done,’” WuDunn says. “Probably we will never be done.”

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