Gender equality is the paramount moral challenge for this century, Nicholas Kristof said Thursday at the Domestic Violence Crisis Center's spring luncheon fundraiser.

The 19th century faced slavery and the 20th century faced totalitarianism, but this century must face the proposition of women the world over having autonomy and the right to self-determination over their own lives, according to Kristof.

"I do think a starting point has to be security and violence, and that's how I came to this issue of human trafficking and domestic violence," the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist said.

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The luncheon, in its 11th year, is the organization's largest fundraiser. About 450 people paid the $115 to $300 admission price for this year's event, which took place at the Stamford Marriott on Tresser Boulevard. In addition to Kristof, the luncheon honored Dr. Mary Henwood-Klotz, the director of Integrative Medicine and Mobile Wellness centers at Stamford Hospital.

The fundraiser also featured a video from students in its PeaceWorks initiative, a program that promotes domestic violence awareness, and its surrounding issues, to local children and teens.

In his address, Kristof offered an anecdote from his time spent in the early 1990s as a New York Times Asia correspondent.

He recalled that two middle school-aged girls were walking to school when they saw an old lady lying hurt on the ground.

The girls helped the old lady up and sat with her. As thanks, the woman offered the girls each a drink. The woman worked for pimps in the sex trade and the drinks were drugged.

She lugged the two unconscious girls into the back of a rickshaw and headed for the red light district.

When she arrived, she went inside a brothel to get her payment from a pimp. The rickshaw driver, who figured out what was going on, took the opening and peddled his rickshaw with the two drugged girls in the back as fast as he could. Kristof said the rickshaw operator saved the girls from a short life of misery and disease, and that such a story was not at all uncommon.

"It really felt to me like traditional slavery, except that most of the people were dead by their 20s because of AIDS," he said.

Before the event, Kristof explained in an interview what he thought the root of domestic violence might be.

"Violence has ancient roots among all kinds of people. I think at some level it's a human, if unfortunate, behavior. I do think it gets to be perpetuated where there are unequal gender relations," he said. "There's a very strong correlation between rising levels of education and more disapproval of domestic violence as well as of more equality between men and women. In 1987, there was a survey that said more than half of Americans thought that it was sometimes acceptable for a man to beat his wife with a stick or a belt; 1987 wasn't so long ago."

He said since that time society has changed a great deal, and that Gallup, who performed the survey, has stopped including the question in its poll.

In a lighter moment during the speech, Kristof touched on the somewhat unusual position of being a man advocating for women.

"I think people are always pretty surprised that a New York Times columnist, and a man to boot, is focusing on women's rights issues. I think there's a starting point that men are jerks," he began, to great laughter in the nearly entirely female room. "I hope that's appreciative laughter, not skeptical. I do think that it's very important that this be a joint effort by men and women alike."

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