Trigger warnings: sexual abuse and rape.
The second part of Half the Sky is much grimmer than the first. Partway through the first segment, my other half requested that I stop watching the documentary in the main room, as it was getting to be too much for him.
That segment, on maternal mortality in Somaliland, is much more about female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM prevents women from being able to give birth in a normal way, leading to preventable complications in pregnancy and labor. While the actual cutting procedure is not shown, it is described in great detail. Although FGM poses enormous risks to both girls as they are growing up and then to women as they have children, it is deeply ingrained in many cultures. A “cutter” interviewed explained that FGM is intended to keep girls “pure” and ensure that they are not “wild” – i.e. sexually active before marriage. Happily, a hospital started by Edna Adan, a former United Nations employee and midwife, is fighting back. Adan’s hospital is training midwives to work throughout rural Somaliland, combating both maternal mortality from unskilled births and difficult labor and FGM through education of women and girls about the risks and effects.
The film moves to Kolkata, India, where Urmi Basu works with women in the prostitute sub-caste in the red light district. She is trying to educate girls so they do not follow their mothers and grandmothers into prostitution. Basu explains that girls follow the trade of their mothers because neither can see another alternative for the girl. The caste system has so entrenched their way of life that there is no reason to leave it, or so many of the women think. Even if a girl is going to school, like Monisha, the young woman Kristof and America Fererra meet, there is still a strong chance she will be forced into prostitution to earn money for her family. Although Basu is trying to provide for new opportunities for girls in the red-light district, it is an uphill battle.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, a former prostitute, Jane, shares with Olivia Wilde her dressmaking business funded by microloans. With the income from her business, she is able to send her children to school and buy a house out of the slums she used to live in. Economic empowerment is important to her, and the millions of women like her, to lift out of poverty and sexual abuse caused by a lack of opportunity and financial security. Unfortunately, while Jane’s story encompasses the successes of microfinance and similar programs, millions of women still do not have access to credit, fair wages, or property ownership – all important parts of economic empowerment. The documentary also does not go into detail on the criticisms of microfinance.
Overall, the Half the Sky documentary is fantastic. I highly recommend it to anyone who has read and loved the book. Be aware that watching this movie and reading this book will change your life. It will make you uncomfortably aware of your privilege and will motivate you to find a way to use that privilege to change women’s lives around the world. The explicit details of FGM may make you squirm, but hopefully they will also inspire you. There are so many interlinked ways that women are oppressed and exploited. As the film says, even helping one girl (or woman) can make a big difference.
The film is no longer available free on PBS but can be bought or rented on iTunes. DVDs are coming out soon. Visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org for more information.