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Half the Sky: Searing portraits of the challenges and triumphs of the world's women

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 2 Oct 2012 20:10 GMT
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By Lisa Anderson

 In Sierra Leone, Fulamutu was raped at 14 by her pastor then ostracised by her own father for shaming the family.

 In Cambodia, teenaged Somana was sold into a brothel, where she and other girls serviced up to 30 clients a day, before the brothel owner gouged her eye out.

 In Vietnam, 14-year-old Nhi bikes 17 miles back and forth to school every day before selling lottery tickets in the evenings to support her family.

These are three of the brave young women we meet in “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” a searing and inspiring documentary based on the best-selling book of the same name by the husband-and-wife team of  Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

New York Times columnist Kristof won his first Pulitzer Prize with WuDunn in 1990 for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square movement for the newspaper.  He won a second Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his columns in the Times. WuDunn is now an author, entrepreneur and investment banker.

The first half of the four-hour documentary debuted on PBS in the U.S. on Monday night, with the second half to be broadcast on Tuesday. International distribution is planned for January 2013.

For the documentary, Kristof traveled to Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Vietnam, Somaliland, Kenya and India to tell the stories of these girls and others like them—and the remarkable people, many of whom have lived through the same experiences, who have made it their mission to help them.

In each country, Kristof was accompanied by a different well-known American actress--Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Gabrielle Union, America Ferrera and Olivia Wilde—none of whom had ever witnessed first-hand the types of suffering—and courage-- they encountered on this journey.

The producers of the documentary were aware that some may look askance at blending the luster of celebrity with the misery that has marked the lives of the women depicted.

In his introduction to the documentary, actor George Clooney frankly addresses that and, tacitly, his own appearance, saying, “The celebrity involvement may be able to amplify the story. That’s all…There are a lot more people that know who Diane Lane is or that know who Meg Ryan is than know Nick Kristof.”

But very little glamour surrounds any of the movie stars in the video as they clearly struggle to cope with the often cruel realities to which Kristof introduces them.

Accompanying the journalist to Cambodia, Meg Ryan meets Somana, an otherwise pretty teenager with a puckered crater where her eye was plucked out by the angry owner of the brothel to which she was sold as a child.   Now, Somana works to help other girls through the Somaly Mam Foundation, which rescued her.

Somaly Mam, who also was sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia as a child, established the foundation to liberate girls like Somana from brothels and give them a new chance at a life.  “My dream is to see my girls become me,” she tells Ryan. 

Mam maintains a safe house for some 78 girls in a rural compound and, there, shows Ryan a 3-year-old girl who was sold to a brothel.

Very young children are desirable, she says. “Is she 12,14?  She’s is too old already.”  

In civil war-torn Sierra Leone, Eva Mendes meets Amie Kandeh of the International Rescue Committee, who started and manages the Rainbo Centers, three of West Africa’s first sexual-assault and gender-based violence referral centers.

Kandeh, a woman with hair twisted into dozens of short braids, tells Mendes that her centers have seen over 9,000 survivors of rape and other sexual violence.  Most, she says, are between the ages of 12 and 17, but 26 percent are under the age of 12, with the youngest being 2 ½ years old.

One of her clients, 14-year-old Fulamutu, had been brave enough to report to police that she had been raped by her pastor, a man the girl said had raped other young girls and threatened to beat them if they told anyone.

But Fulamutu tells Mendes and Kristof that her reward for speaking up was to be kicked out of the house by her father who felt shamed by the public awareness of the incident and was convinced that his daughter had somehow seduced the pastor.

“Being raped is an unpardonable sin,” Kandeh tells Mendes and Kristof.

In Vietnam, Nih displays a different kind of courage, daring to go to school in a rural area where education can be a liability for girls and just bicycling alone along deserted dirt paths can be a danger.

  “In the Mekong Delta, it’s very difficult for educated girls to get a husband,” an interpreter tells Kristof and the actress Gabrielle Union.

“Half the Sky” refers to a Chinese proverb that says women “hold up half the sky.”  But, still, three out of five women in the world encounter gender violence, says Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi, one of a number of prominent women championing women's rights who appear in the video.

Another is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who says, “The role and rights of women, their freedom and equality and dignity, is the unfinished business of the 21st century.”

Video and other material from the documentary can be found here.


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