Emotional PBS documentary Half the Sky shows abuse of women across the globe as moral crisis
It is the kind of experience you would assume no one could survive.
A bright girl, missing an eye, which was gouged out when she refused to service a client in a brothel which she had been sold to in Cambodia. Another energetic woman, describing a life working to aid rape victims in Sierra Leone, only to come home to an abusive husband who beat her and promised one night to walk on her grave.
And there is the passionate woman who saves young prostitutes kidnapped or sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia, herself a former prostitute who isn't sure of her own age or her real name.
These are the stories crowding just the first hour of Half the Sky, the amazing PBS documentary built from the book of the same name, written by married New York Times staffers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The book made a massive impact in 2009, presenting the crisis of women's oppression across the world as the most pressing social problem of the 21st Century -- beyond terrorism, the environment or even energy resources.
"If you cast your eyes around the world, there is no group that needs to be empowered more than women and girls," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview planted at the documentary's start. "(Its') the unfinished business of the 21st Century." Visit the web site here.
To create the documentary, Kristof takes American female stars overseas to meet the activists and see the situations profiled in the book, from a Family Support Unit in Sierra Leone which treats victims of rape in a country where women and girls and regularly violated (onscreen, actress Eva Mendez and Kristof meet a 3-year-old victim of sexual assault.) Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon, Gabriella Union, America Ferrera and Olivia Wilde also participate, discovering some of the strongest most good natured girls in the midst of the most horrific conditions you can imagine.
"There are sometimes, when — there are values that are oppressive to women that are embedded in a culture, sometimes in a religion, and I don’t think one can ignore that fact," Kristof said in an interview with journalists in Los Angeles back in July. "But what we’ve tried to do is focus on organizations that are on the ground — at the grass roots, they’re bringing about change, in a sense amplify their voices. It is a privilege, you know, for me as a journalist to use my little spotlight and for us as the HALF THE SKY team to use our collective spotlight to highlight the work...We’re trying to amplify and give expression to an extraordinarily articulate advocate of change there."
Viewers will be challenged to hold back the tears and anger while watching this film. In Sierra Leone, they meet a teenage girl who gathers the courage to tell police when a local pastor and family friend raped her -- a man the other children in her neighborhood know to stay away from due to his proclivities. The victim's father was supportive in from of Kristof's cameras, but later bends to the public shame and kicks both his wife and daughter out of their house. The police investigators -- who had to be prodded into searching the suspect's room and belongings -- admit they have only successfully prosecuted one man in a country where thousands of women are raped each year.
The commonality here is often poverty, instability from recent wars, old school patriarchal cultures and a lack of education for the women.
Armed with an inquisitive nature and his trusty notebook, Kristof straddles the line between journalist and advocate, pushing police to arrest the pastor in Sierra Leone -- one of his own security men actually takes the guy into custody after the reporter called him to set up a bogus meeting.
"This issue of gender injustice struck us as the paramount moral issue of our age, whether it’s trafficking, women dying needlessly in childbirth, domestic violence, issue after issue after issue," said Kristof, who also bought two girls from a brothel in Cambodia to save them from the sex trade. "And there is something of a tradition, frankly, as a foreign correspondent of getting involved to save a life. And if you come across somebody who’s been shot and you have a vehicle and the person is going to die otherwise, you don’t just stand back and photograph the person dying. You do use your vehicle to get that person to a hospital. And so maybe I interpreted that spirit a little bit liberally when I purchased these two girls from the brothel, but I thought that, as a columnist, I had a little more license and that this would help shine a little more light, make this issue a little bit more real. And for these two girls it would be completely transformative."
Below is a clip from the documentary, which airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow on WEDU-Ch. 3 locally.