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Do Not Miss This Deeply Inspiring Documentary

'Half the Sky' circles the globe to look at women's rights

By Jessi Cape, 10:09AM, Tue. Oct. 2, 2012

Community members of the Umoja Women's Village in Kenya with actress Olivia Wilde
Community members of the Umoja Women's Village in Kenya with actress Olivia Wilde

Earlier this year in a blog post about my piles of bedside books, I wrote of the profound experience and inspiration I gained from reading journalists and human rights activists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

The book tackles the shockingly common and horrific topics of sex trafficking, rape, extreme poverty, and maternal mortality in a way that speaks to both hearts and minds. Monday night I sat riveted watching the first half of the documentary based on the book during its world premiere on PBS.

Admittedly, I watch very little television, opting instead for books and films in the precious moments I find for my own entertainment while tending to more pressing matters in life – my son and home, my job, my writing, and my educational pursuits. In fact, I almost missed the opportunity to watch Half the Sky – named for the Chinese proverb that states, “Women hold up half the sky” – Monday evening as I was engaged in these very activities. I am so glad I remembered at the last minute to flip on the screen and watch the women and girls who accomplish these same daily endeavors against unspeakable odds. (For those of you who didn’t catch the first-half of this two-part Independent Lens series, the episode is currently streaming on the KLRU website.)

American actors Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, and Gabrielle Union join Nicholas Kristof in the field as he visits the women and girls he and WuDunn highlight in the book. I was slightly apprehensive that the presence of such recognizable faces would overshadow the monumental importance of the message Kristof and WuDunn are trying to convey. Instead, watching the sincere and surprising reactions of the three women as they witness firsthand the obstacles and tragedies unfolding in everyday life for the women and girls in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Vietnam, respectively, was very moving. Each celebrity brings to the table her own experiences, one similar to the documentary’s core thematic issues. The famous faces and names lend star power to the cause that every human should champion: female empowerment.

Leaders of world aid organizations and the indomitable Secretary of State speak periodically throughout the documentary, raising their voices in support of the worldwide movement. Yet more powerful perhaps are the interviews with the women and girls themselves as they seek out education, safe places to live, and access to basic healthcare – all aspects of daily life most first-world inhabitants view as rights, not luxuries. The documentary also features women like Somaly Mam and Amie Kandeh, who share the stories of the girls and have dedicated their lives to change. Sheryl WuDunn provides clear-cut evidence of the effects of educating girls and prosecuting abusers across the globe. In addition to social and moral factors, several authorities relay the importance of changing cultural attitudes and uplifting females of all backgrounds based upon statistical evidence from research aimed at discovering the enormous impact of reducing oppression and championing equal rights for all people.

The previews of the second episode of Half the Sky show snippets of footage from trips to Somaliland, India, and Kenya with Diane Lane, America Ferrera, and Olivia Wilde. This time I won’t half-remember to flip on the channel: Tonight I’ll be planted on the couch at 8pm to see the second part of this powerful film.

Watch Women Are Not the Problem, They Are the Solution on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

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