Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity – Part I

Trigger warning: Discussions of rape, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.

On Monday, October 1, Half the Sky, the companion documentary to the book of the same title by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, premiered on PBS.  It starts with George Clooney, Meg Ryan, and other celebrities talking about the women and girls they met around the world, and learning about the issues they face. The film immediately explains it’s reasoning for using celebrities: they are more recognizable than journalists, and thus any project with them attached will automatically get more attention. As Kristof explains the background and situation of each country and issue to the celebrity in each segment, he educates the viewer as well.

If you have not read the book, you should stop here, go get it, read it, and then come back.  Of course, the documentary is stand-alone, but the book is a powerful introduction to women’s issues around the world, and to some of the major players featured in the documentary.

The documentary is a powerful visual complement to the book.  It’s one thing to read about the difficulties raiding a brothel to rescue girls enslaved there – it’s another to watch the raid as it unfolds and see the faces of the victims and their abusers, hear victim’s voices as they tell their stories.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is highlighted in the first segment by introducing women in Sierra Leone, where rape is a culturally accepted practice. It’s more effective for change to come from inside a culture, rather than people from the outside telling them everything they do is wrong, Kristof notes. Amie Kandeh, an International Rescue Committee director of several shelters for sexually abused women is Leonese herself, and therefore is effective to some extent, because she is a member of the culture and community.  She supports those who have been raped and assaulted and reassures them despite the stigma of being a victim. The  social and family consequences of victims are hard – loss of home, educational opportunity, and the ability to marry. Although the police may arrest a suspect, there is very little prosecution or conviction of rapists.

The story continues with Somaly Mam, who rescues and teaches sex slaves in Cambodia.  Her goal is to educate, find employment for, and empower the girls to “say no, if they want to say no.”  Meg Ryan joins Kristof in Cambodia for this segment, which highlights Mam’s mentees and the challenges they face as they recover from the abuse and trauma they faced daily in the brothel.  The segment features a daring raid on a brothel near the Thai border involving Mam, Kristof, and police. What is great about Mam’s story, and the stories of her girls is that they have come from nightmares and now can run, laugh, and play.  They are able to give and receive love and affection.

The episode concludes with a less traumatic segment about educating girls in Vietnam with Room to Read. Educating girls around the world is challenging, but in Southeast Asia, as much of East Asia and India, girls are not valued the way boys are.  Many families do not see the point of educating a girl, yet educating girls is one of the strongest correlations to improved livelihood for both genders. Although girls face opposition to their education, they will do whatever it takes to go to school – bike 17 miles each day or rise at 3AM to do housework before school.

Each segment highlights a particular story, drawing in the viewer to be an intensely personal part of the challenges women face around the world. Gender-based violence, sexual slavery and trafficking, and education are issues everywhere, not just in the countries used as examples.  Raising awareness through the documentary and the book is only the first step.  Shining the light on these issues will hopefully spur others to action against the cultural, structural, economic, and legal opposition to women’s empowerment and women’s rights.

What I like about the structure of the film is that international “experts” like Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem  and Melanne Verveer speak about each issue following the personal stories.  They bring it from the personal to the high level, linking an individual’s situation to the international situation and what a person from the United States can do, whether celebrity or just ordinary citizen.

Come back next week for an overview of Part II!

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