Two-day documentary series explores gender inequality and violence around the world.

Girl at New Light Creche in Kolkata, India. Photo by Josh Bennett.

On Oct. 1 and 2, PBS stations around the nation, including KCPT here in town, will be marked as dates to learn, contemplate and possibly react to a presentation called Half the Sky. This Show of Force LLC and Fugitive Films production developed in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) is a special television event that uses in-the-moment investigations and emotionally explosive storytelling to confront perhaps the greatest moral challenge: the oppression of women and girls around the world.

Filmed in 10 countries and inspired by the best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky is driven by the growing awareness that empowering women is the best way to increase prosperity and stability around the globe. Six talented actress-advocates — Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Diane Lane, America Ferrera, and Olivia Wilde — join Kristof as he travels to Asia and Africa to meet face-to-face with inspiring individuals working to bring about change and the women and girls who confront extreme gender inequality in their daily lives.

Women and girls around the globe face threats — trafficking, prostitution, violence, and discrimination — every day of their lives. WuDunn says, “In the same way that slavery was a moral challenge for the 19th century and totalitarianism was a challenge for the 20th century, the challenge that women and girls face around the world is the moral challenge of our time.” This media event is part of the Women and Girls Lead multiyear public media initiative to focus, educate, and connect citizens worldwide in support of the issues facing women and girls. Combining independent documentary film, television, new media, and global outreach partnerships, Women and Girls Lead amplifies the voices of women and girls acting as leaders, expands understanding of gender equity, and engages an international network of citizens and organizations to act locally and reach out globally.

Along with the four-hour event, there will be other engagement pieces such as a Facebook-hosted social-action game and mobile games created by Games for Change, two websites, 20 educational video modules with companion text, a social-media campaign supporting more than 30 partner non-government organizations and an impact assessment plan.

Episode One, on Oct. 1, takes actress Eva Mendes and Kristof into the gender-based violence in Sierra Leone, a country where most of the assaults and rapes go unreported. They meet with Amie Kandeh, who works with the International Rescue Committee and runs three of West Africa’s sexual assault referral centers. Kandeh reveals that the vast majority of the center’s rape and sexual assault cases are young women under 17, with 26 percent under age 12.

In Cambodia, where 30 percent of prostitutes are children, Half the Sky examines the issue of sex trafficking. Meg Ryan and Kristof meet Somaly Mam, herself sold into slavery as a young girl, but who is now a world-renowned leader in the anti-trafficking struggle. Mam runs a center to rehabilitate and educate girls rescued from brothels.

When Mam learns that underage girls have been discovered in a brothel on the Thai border, she organizes a daring raid with the help of local authorities as Kristof and the cameras capture this dramatic and dangerous effort to free underage girls being held as sex slaves. Working tirelessly to bring the voices of these girls to the world, Mam uses innovative approaches, such as a weekly radio show, to raise awareness. “We’re going to change Cambodia,” she says. “We want you to hear from us. If you don’t listen to us, we’ll keep on talking. We’re not tired at all.”

Gabrielle Union and Kristof visit Vietnam with former Microsoft marketing executive John Wood, who started Room to Read, an organization which works to promote literacy and equal education for girls across the developing world. In Vietnam women have been traditionally devalued, and many girls are kept at home to tend to household chores while boys continue their education.

“When you educate a girl, there’s a ripple effect that goes beyond what you would get from a normal investment,” WuDunn says. “When you educate a girl, she tends to get married later on in life; she tends to have fewer kids. She takes better care of her kids. She has greater economic opportunity. She might create a business so she can contribute to the local economy. When you educate a girl, you educate a village.”

Episode Two, on Oct. 2, Diane Lane and Kristof investigate maternal mortality in Somaliland, where 1 in 12 women die in childbirth due to poor nutrition and the effects of female genital mutilation (FGM)—also known as cutting — a brutal ritual that has been performed on more than 130 million women around the world. They meet with Edna Adan, founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, Somaliland’s first maternal health facility. Adan saves the lives of pregnant women on a daily basis with sophisticated health care and C-sections. She also trains midwives, who then return to their communities, and works to educate women about the dangers of FGM, which causes infection and scarring that leads to difficulties in childbirth.

In India it is estimated that 90 percent of sex workers’ daughters follow their mothers into prostitution and, of the 3 million prostitutes in the country, 1.2 million are children. In Kolkata, America Ferrera and Kristof visit the Kalighat red-light district to meet Urmi Basu, who is working to break the tradition of forced prostitution passed down from mothers to daughters. Basu’s New Light shelter program was established to protect and educate young girls, children, and women who are at high risk for commercial sexual exploitation.

As Kristof says, “We, as Americans, have won the lottery of life and the distinction between us and people living in Kalighat is not that we are smarter, not that we’re harder working, not that we’re more virtuous — it’s that we’re luckier.”

Economic empowerment is key to turning the tide against poverty, violence, and the oppression of women. When women have money of their own, they invest more than twice as much as men in their families, education, and the future. In Kenya, Olivia Wilde joins Kristof to see firsthand how women entrepreneurs are changing not only their lives but their communities. Ingrid Munro founded Jamii Bora, a microfinancing organization for women; one of Jamii Bora’s greatest success stories is Jane Ngori, a former prostitute and single mother of four who is now running a dressmaking business.

WuDunn has a background in banking and journalism and Kristof is a full-time journalist. “We are not development experts. We have never worked for a non-governmental organization (a NGO), but we have worked in journalism where we have looked at both sides of an issue. The idea still is about balance. After doing that, we learned we can’t turn away. We did pick sides and partly because we are outsiders, we first gave our book credibility and now the series.”

WuDunn and Kristof take their views and provide that journalist eye to these true stories. “We are not full-time social justice advocates which gave us a different approach.” The issues arose after much research. “These problems had not been explained to the world. Plus the actresses lent their own spotlight and we were thrilled that they would make the time for our project. It takes a lot of people with many areas of expertise to put this together and place it in the mainstream.”

Independent Lens and Public Television are another combined component in this project. “It’s a perfect venue. Public television cares about issues and they are willing to show that stark reality to a wide audience. The entire diaspora, the ecosystem, the profile of these NGOs in these areas need to seep into the American psyche. We have begun to create a greater awareness. Simply put, if people aren’t aware, you can’t make changes. We have to begin the foundation for change.”

While this two-day documentary event has some difficult, grim and challenging issues to hear and watch such as child prostitution and human trafficking, there will be power and movement from each individual who watches, WuDunn says. “There is power no doubt, but each person will watch the documentary and feel tugged by a person or an issue. We put the book out in 2009 and now the documentary. We are delighted to see the broadcast and we hope that people will want to get involved. We aren’t asking people to drop their lives and journey to India. It will take many to push for greater change. Many of these issues are here in the United States so people wanting to get involved can focus here. We must become advocates for change. We all have certain skills and it is rewarding to get involved. I think it will surprise people at how rewarding it is to get involved.”

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

Leave a Reply