"Talent is universal, and, opportunity is not,” said Nicholas Kristof in “Half the Sky,” the documentary filmed after Kristof ‘s co-authored true account of global oppression through stories involving women in Half the Sky. Kristof also is a New York Times columnist.
Sheryl WuDunn, Kristof’s co-author and wife, and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, both echo that “[t]he challenge that girls and women face around the world is the moral dilemma of our time.”
With the cache of the New York Times backing Kristof and WuDunn, these journalists’ relentless spirits unveil the truths of moral dilemmas regarding our era.
“I’m really thrilled that journalists like Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have taken on this role,” said Dr. Laura Brunell, chair of Gonzaga’s political science department who also teaches women’s and gender studies classes. “It’s a different kind of thing to be journalists but to kind of use journalism as a springboard as some kind of activism … there’s ways for us to feel like we’re not just reporting the news but that we’re actually making a difference with that information.”
“I think that we’re so much further along in our understanding of human rights than 100 years ago,” Denise Atwood, co-owner of local fair trading company Ganesh Himal, said. “We don’t have to go through the cheap sweat shop experience. [Half the Sky] is exposing a lot of approaches and, what usually happens in the West, they’re trying not to be hyper judgmental.”
“Half the Sky” narrates women’s issues and opens up opportunities for women to leave oppressive situations, such as domestic violence and harmful traditions such as honor killings, stonings, or female genital mutilation by becoming economically empowered and educated.
The documentary accompanies Kristof across 10 countries with six American actresses who direct attention to these issues with the help of their celebrity status. The six actresses are Diane Lane who visited Somaliland, America Ferrara in India, Meg Ryan in Cambodia, Eva Mendes in Liberia, Olivia Wilde in Kenya and Gabrielle Union in Vietnam.
These reporters and celebrities talk and meet with victims of maternal mortality, female genital mutilation and intergenerational prostitution, as well as leaders in economic empowerment, advocates for education, and managers of refuge sites.
A frequent question is raised: “Why does something like this happen? What are the causes?”
Brunell points to the presence of poverty, patriarchy and the need for economic development.
Atwood is an on-the-ground example of “Half the Sky” through her fair trade efforts in Spokane and Nepal. Her company, Ganesh Himal Trading, has worked with producers in Nepal for the last 25 years focusing on issues that marginalize women.
“I identify more with grassroots efforts when you allow women to be empowered,” Atwood said.
Atwood sells women’s crafts in Nepal (jewelry, bags, scarves, etc.) by working with the Association of Crafts Producers and selling in the U.S., working out of Spokane Valley and stocking local fair trade stores such as Kizuri.
“The work I do in Nepal, it’s a very small field. I’m very relational and why I feel it’s really effective,” Atwood said.
Atwood also started the Power of 5 campaign where $5 can help educate a girl in Nepal for one year.
“So many people really want to help,” Atwood said. “They feel they have to give a lot of money because of administrative fees. But 100 percent is sent over. With a $5 donation, they should feel proud because it makes such a significant difference.” So far, Ganesh Himal has sent $10,000 to Nepal and funds keep coming in.
Atwood shared the Nepali girls’ excitement about school and their desire to continue.
“School is free, but strenuous fees stop parents from sending students to school,” Atwood said. “If they can, they only send their son because he is a better investment and will stay with them the rest of their lives. A lot of girls want to go to school.”
When girls are not educated in poorer communities in places like Cambodia, Nepal, Thailand and India, they are sold to brothels or promised to gain work in bigger cities. What ultimately unfolds is horrific realities where young girls are forced into sex trafficking, their national documents lost and their sense of self worth tarnished.
The critical backbone of sex trafficking is slavery, which is often overlooked. People, women, young women, and children are often bonded, over shadowed by the profited prostitution industries.
“[Slavery is] a means to an end. It’s something that’s challenging in my conversations with college students when I started talking about trafficking” Brunell said. “College students mostly want to talk about sex trafficking, most people want to talk about the sexy stuff … it’s amazing how many times people go to the sex part almost exclusively.”
In an invisible world that is silent because of threats from brothel owners or pimps, exploited women become stuck in a system that can be difficult to escape. While undercover, Kristof rescued a few girls from brothels.
“Rescuing girls is the easy part,” he wrote in “Half the Sky,” a dangerous task that puts the rescued victim and Kristof at high risk with the brothel owners who considered the girls their property. Sadly, some of the girls returned to the brothels because of the drugs they were hooked on, such as methamphetamine and other substances abused to act happy while with clients.
“There are women all over the world that left their country of origin and are now working behind closed doors where they’re invisible,” Brunell said. “They may be abused sexually, they may be not. They may be abused verbally, they may be held in bondage … they’re such a vulnerable and invisible population that the way this goes, they’re required or arranged to come, and then they take their papers and they’re never seen or heard from again.”
“[Slavery is] much more difficult to eradicate, because it’s a non-system. It’s a plurality of systems … it is something we need to think about, be cognizant of in our conversations,” Brunell said.
GU’s Communications and Leadership Studies program along with the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media hosted a showing of “Half the Sky” on Tuesday, March 19 with a panel discussion by Brunell, Atwood, and Eastern Washington University professors Julia Smith and Jessica Willis.
An audience that was majority female posed questions about male attitude toward women and brothel owners’ psychology to put underaged girls in such unwanted circumstances.
The film breaks down that women are women, and does not uphold the social stigmas of separating good women (pure) from bad women (prostitutes), Smith said. Smith conducts field work in Costa Rica.
“Whenever you have a legal sex industry, you have an illegal sex industry,” Smith said. What the law deems right or wrong seems to have little effect on the commoditization of the sex trafficking industry.
Lutheran Community Services in Spokane partners with the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network. According to the United States’ Homeland Security website, The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act is in place to combat “trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude.”
The Mann Act of 1910 and its amendment “makes it a felony to knowingly persuade, induce, or entice, or coerce an individual to travel across state lines to engage in prostitution or attempts to do so,” under Chapter 117 in the U.S. code of laws.
But that’s in the U.S. As the film highlights, laws are not as resolute elsewhere. Law officials don’t always act lawfully but instigate the problem.
But progress is being made. GU sophomore Megan Batty is the founder of the first West Coast chapter of She’s the First, a nonprofit that supports education for girls in the developing world. The club had its first meeting before Christmas break shortly after GSBA passed approval. GU’s Setons will donate money raised from muffin sales to sponsor a girl’s education for one whole year, Batty said. The club is still deciding where to send funds and considered Costa Rica, Nepal and India.
“Next year, we hope to extend donations to more people to educate more than one girl a year,” Batty said.
“People don’t necessarily need a helping hand, they need partners,” Atwood said at the discussion panel following the viewing of “Half the Sky.”
“It’s not who we are that makes a difference, it’s what we do,” Willis said, also during the panel. “Sex trafficking and women empowerment, they’re one in the same issue.”
Atwood suggested other ways to contribute, such as buying fair trade gifts from Kizuri and participating in World Relief’s Race to end slavery in conjunction with Bloomsday on May 5. For $12, runners receive a T-shirt and get to participate in Bloomsday. Register at www.bloomsday.org and, of course, read “Half the Sky.”
“The biggest progress is in the imagination,” feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem said in the documentary. As Zainab Salbi, co-founder and president of Women for Women International, also poignantly noted,
“A country can never fly if one of the country’s wings is broken.”