International Human Rights has only been a documented declaration for half of a century however; nation states and governing bodies around the globe have been concerned with human rights issues for centuries. Under this Human Rights umbrella, Women’s Rights are drawing increasing attention.
Half the Sky is an amazingly well written book by two journalist, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who have traveled the world recounting first-hand stories of Women’s Rights violations at the individual and community level. Some of the issues covered include gender based violence, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, maternal health, gender inequality in education, and economic empowerment. On October 2nd and 3rd the Half the Sky movement premiered a two part documentary film on PBS, in an effort to raise awareness surrounding these critical Human Rights issues. As the authors have proclaimed, “these are not women’s issues, they are human rights issues.”
Poverty, conflict, and lack of education are critical factors in the prevalence of these issues at an international level, but what is the United States excuse? These are U.S. issues too, domestic violence and trafficking are prevalent within the U.S. borders. As a country, the United States speaks and advocates on behalf of women’s rights. President Obama just gave a speech at the Clinton Foundation in support of efforts to end human trafficking. Yet, as a country, we are not living what we advocate. The United States is one of 6 countries (out of 193 nation states) that has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. These are not issues of others; these are domestic and international issues and violations that transcend gender and geographical borders.
Violent and discriminatory acts directly impact all aspects of women and girls lives, their destructive nature also permeates the larger community, impacting economic growth and social stability. These are issues that directly challenge the value of women within a culture and within societies. The lack of value that cultures place on their women is seen repeatedly through actions within communities. The use of rape as a weapon of war, the lack of access to basic maternal health care, the act of “controlling a woman” through mutilating her genitals, the ability to sell a woman into sexual slavery, failing to provide education for girls, choosing to abort fetuses or kill infants based on gender; the list of brutal acts of discrimination and displays of devaluation are numerous.
It is gut-wrenching to see, in the film, that women are also sometimes the perpetrators of violence; seen through the brothel owners and women performing female circumcisions. This speaks yet again to the lack of value afforded women, sometimes even from themselves. This devaluation based on gender dually works towards dis-empowering these women. Dis-empowerment is a dangerous poison. In the face of violence and discrimination women are left feeling powerless, ashamed, and fearful. How can they not be when they are shunned by their own communities and unsupported by their law enforcement and legal system?
Do not make the mistake however of thinking of these women as victims, calling them victims only continues to dis-empower them. They are survivors, and they are the key to making fundamental cultural shifts within their communities. Watching the film, I was struck by the amazing resilience and drive of many of these women. In spite of all the brutality they have and continue to face, they are taking a stand. In order for movement and cultural shifts to continue, these women need leadership skills and a voice in decision making and peacekeeping bodies.
It is critically important that change is enacted at the grassroots level. This movement is a call to action to both men and women. To support and promote human rights for women, men must also serve as allies in effecting change. We are all human, and as human beings, we have a social responsibility to aid these women in accessing resources and empower them with education and economic capacity building. Nicholas and Sheryl offer a solution for beginning to create this shift, education. So many people take education for granted, yet in many countries around the world it provides a safe haven for girls, an opportunity for a new life. The “ripple effect” of educating girls is addressed in the book and the film, discussing how educating a girl can change the family as well as positively impact the community and economic structure of a country.
Despite having read the book prior to watching the documentary, I had a physical reaction to seeing such raw, real emotions and stories of women around the world brought to life. Awareness is the first step to change, and so many of us around the world remain unaware. Half the Sky is an enlightening book and film, which draws attention to the prevalence and severity of Women’s Rights issues with such shocking clarity that it is impossible not to be moved to action.
Please visit www.halftheskymovement.org or call the Unitarian Universalist-United Nations Office at 212-986-5165 to learn more about these issues and how you can get involved. If you are interested in hosting a 40-minute screening and discussion of the film, Half the Sky, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* In the end it is not only women that suffer from these violations, our world suffers*