Today's Chicago Woman

CARE Celebrates International Women's Day with "Half the Sky"

On a recent episode of NBC's sitcom Parks and Recreation, Lesley Knope (Amy Poehler), a proud and self-proclaimed feminist, is stunned when the Indiana Organization of Women gives their Woman of the Year award to her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) instead of her. She's even more angered when she finds out their ulterior motives: the IOW, a representative tells her, has been written off as a niche women's interest group. Nobody cares or pays attention. But if they give an award to a mustachioed, macho man? Well, that makes headlines. 

Why do I bring the episode up? Last Thursday evening, I* enjoyed CARE's showing of Half the Sky, a film that takes the same name of the Nicholas Kristof/Sheryl WuDunn co-authored book. The co-authors are usually introduced thusly: "New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn."

I'll save the cynicism for a little further down, though, as it was admittedly fleeting: For the other 99.5% of the evening, I felt inspired, empowered, and quite often, on the verge of tears.


Last year, CARE presented a documentary titled A Powerful Noise in honor of International Women's Day (today, March 8) that followed the lives of three women making a difference in their communities around the globe; it was a followed by a discussion live-broadcast from New York. (I wrote about it here.) This year, CARE built the presentation around Half the Sky, a book that, as CARE CEO Dr. Helene Gayle noted, was published only last year but is already in its 20th printing. The basic premise of the book, and the presentation, is both simple and revolutionary: that the "best way to fight poverty and extremism is to educate and empower women and girls." That is, if you give women and girls the tools to change their communities, they will in greater numbers and to larger effect than their male counterparts.

Pre-filmed in New York, it featured activists like Maria Bello and Diane Birch reading stories of women around the world who are fighting for rights and empowerment to the betterment of their communities. The heart of the evening, though, wisely, was left in the hands of the short film/documentary, Woinshet. Directed by Marisa Tomei and Lisa Leone, it perfectly embodies the "why we should empower women" theory.

As a 13-year-old girl in Ethiopia in 2001, Woinshet was held down by a group of men and raped by one of them. The film follows the aftermath: Her father is approached by members of the community with the command, "Don't embarass us," stating that the boy made a mistake and would like to marry Woinshet; her father refuses; Woinshet and her father file for rape; Woinshet travels two days by bus to be seen by a female doctor who, examining her now days-old wounds, questions whether she was a "fresh virgin" at the time of the rape; Woinshet appears before a judge who implores of her: "Isn't it true you agreed to have sex with Andrew (her rapist) because you were in love with him? Who will want to marry a non-virgin?"; Woinshet refuses to marry her rapist despite her community's pressure otherwise. (In Ethiopia, Tomei later explained, the misogyny was so ingrained that it was written into law: The "marital exception" law stated that if a rapist marries his victim, he cannot be prosecuted for the crime. 70 percent of couples in Woinshet's rural community came into their marriages through this law.) Woinshet, with the support of her father and brother, fought a years-long legal battle that eventually led to the law being overturned. Today, Woinshet's work continues, as she campaigns to change the culture that supports such customs one person, one community, at a time. It is slow, person-by-person work, where hearing a young boy proclaim, "I want people to marry out of consent," seems like a radical victory.

Woinshet's mission was mirrored in the discussion that followed, moderated by WuDunn and featuring Kristof, Dr. Gayle, activists Sarah Ferguson and Maria Bello, and Assistant Secretary-General Rachel Mayanja. Societies where women are marginalized, Kristof noted, are much more likely to experience extreme violence. The keys to changing this came down, over and over throughout the film, to empowerment and education of women and girls -- and men and boys.  "You can't change the situation for women without changing the environment," Dr. Gayle said. "You need to educate men and boys, so they recognise that they grow as a result of empowering the women and girls in their lives." Mayanja put this a different way: "Education is the key to freedom."

Examples such as these, to me, are why cries of "feminsm is dead" or "we're post-feminist" ring so falsely (and of ignorance). The basic tenants of feminism--that women should have equal access to opportunities, be treated with respect and have agency over their life--still resonate today, perhaps more than ever. Just because the state of the main benefactors of the second wave of feminism in First World countries (being honest, white, middle class women) has been vastly improved doesn't mean it's time to pack up, dust off your shoulders and go home. It means it's time to broaden your scope. I'm especially encouraged by the growing realization that it's not enough to empower and educate women, but that both genders must be brought into the movement. 

The exposure and credibility that this book--and by extension, the movement to empower women and girls--have been given cannot be underestimated or under-appreciated. Kristof is doing important work, and it deserves to be recognized. But here's where my cynicism comes in: I can't help but wonder if it took a man's byline to garner such recognition for the premise--not from CARE, which is 15 years older than Kristof himself, but from the mainstream media and society in general. If it were only "wife" Sheryl WuDunn's byline, would the book have earned such widespread acceptance and exposure? For that matter, if it were a female writer, would Kristof's excellent columns ever been given such a platform? Perhaps my doubt is unwarranted, but I've seen female-driven campaigns against gender-based violence, toward economic empowerment and the like written off as niche women's issues or feminist drivel too many times to not, at least, raise the question. It's simultaneously encouraging that a highly-visible man has put his whole weight behind this issue, and disheartening that it was necessary to so raise the profile of the cause. If a man's co-signature is needed to advance the movement past a "woman's issue," that is, at a minimum, discouraging and at best, ironic. How are we to give rise to the voices of women if it still takes a man's approval to make them heard?

But, like I said, that's just one cynical question to emerge from an overall outstanding evening. Maybe it's a case where the ends outweigh the means. If a man's voice (one which, to be fair, in this film was accompanied by an impressive and large group of women) helps make this important message heard and driven forward, far be it from me to complain.

Readers, what do you think? And if you've read Half the Sky, or saw the film, what was your reaction?

And finally: Happy International Women's Day!


More information:
Half the Sky Movement
The Girl Effect (Worth clicking here to view the opening sequence.)


*Full disclosure: I attended on a press ticket.



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