Women Hold Up Half the Sky


“Never underestimate the power of a woman.”  ~ Nellie McClung

Yesterday I was feeling a bit punk after the holiday — tired, restless, missing my family — so I puttered around the house but didn’t do much.  Finally, late in the day I sat down and watched the first half of the documentary, Half the Sky, based upon the book of the same name by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  I knew the subject matter would not be completely palatable, but I’ve wanted to see it since September (when PBS showed it and I was too swamped with teaching to watch it) so I settled into a chair and spent a couple of hours watching three stories in three different countries unfold.  The stories were predictably grim and hopeful at the same time.  The subject matter was horrifying (sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual slavery, rape, sexual molestation, genital mutilation) but the work being done, largely by powerhouse women — even in countries like Sierra Leone — was absolutely awe-inspiring.

Women and girls throughout the developing world are subjected to excruciating mistreatment (often at the hands of men, but also at the hands of their sisters, mothers, neighbors) simply because they are girls. Sheryl WuDunn’s research indicates that more girls disappeared (without explanation) during the 20th century (over 100 million) than the number of people who died in all the wars that were fought during that century.  Think about it.  That is a sobering statistic.  Where did those girls and women go?  They were killed, thrown away, sold off, burned, raped, molested and beaten.  They were systematically erased.  They were annihilated by a system that still favors men over women worldwide.

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” ~Audre Lorde

So, today, I am pondering those stories.  Stories of resilience.  Stories of pain.  Stories of deep compassion, resolve, hope.  Girls as young as three are sold to brothels in Cambodia where they are subjected to repeated rapes, STDs and even HIV.  Somali Mam — a survivor of the brothels herself — has made it her mission to rescue and rehabilitate girls who’ve been sold into sexual slavery.  A young woman in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam rides her bike seventeen miles a day to go to school. Another sells lottery tickets to support her family, yet still goes to school with dreams of a better life.

As a Western woman, the things these girls work so hard to have, I have simply by virtue of the country where I was born.  Access to clean running water, electricity, a warm bed, a free public education, libraries, art galleries, and theaters — these were mine at birth.  What a gift to be born somewhere where my journey had so much inherent possibility and purpose before I took any action at all.

Imagine if all girls had the same chance!

Education is the best investment we can make in the future.  This is especially true of educating women and girls.  Girls who are educated have fewer children and take better care of the children they have.  They marry later and make better choices in terms of the type of person they marry. They tend to educate their own children because they understand the value of education. And they are much less likely to live in poverty.

The world that’s being born needs the passion and power and tenderness of women.  It needs the collaborative, nurturing nature of women.  It needs the creativity and joy and forgiveness of women.  It needs the solutions, ideas, and gifts that everyone possesses, but we especially need to hear from women.  Women have traditionally not been given a seat at the table.  And the fact of the matter is, we cannot build a new, more inclusive world without the participation, roots, and foundation that women provide.

I am profoundly grateful for my life as an educated woman.

I am grateful for the doors that education opened for me. I realize that much is being done, but there is still more to do.  If you are interested in finding out how you can help, contact Half the Sky about ways to get involved.

© 2012  Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved

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