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Half the Sky: Using Multimedia to Help Women Globally

mspencers Icon Posted by Miranda Spencer

March 5th, 2010

This past Thursday (March 4), I saw a special, one-night-only nationwide screening of “Half the Sky.” The film, based on a staged event at NYU last fall, is in turn based on the book of the same title by NY Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn. It featured readings from the book, inspiring musical performances, a video about the horrific “marital exemption” to kidnapping and rape in Ethiopia, and a celebrity-laden roundtable discussion on dealing with gender-based injustice across the globe. Innovatively, the show was interactive, repeatedly urging viewers to text the word “sky” to a number onscreen so we can keep abreast of and participate in the work of CARE, the event’s sponsor.

As I recently learned, the veteran international aid organization — now under the leadership of public health physician Helene Gayle –has reoriented its mission to emphasize empowering women and girls.
This female-centric approach is explained on CARE’s website in a “Women’s Empowerment” white paper; essentially, CARE has found, the best way to fight global poverty is to “uproot… the underlying causes….including the human-made social, political and economic power structures that consistently exclude certain groups of people — and none more consistently and persistently than women in every society on the planet. Globally, poverty wears a woman’s face.”

I think CARE’s campaign is well worth joining, and the multimedia strategy, which presents important issues in diverse formats, is a neat way to engage different audiences. But I did have some mixed feelings about the event. Why, for example, was it shown on just one night during Women’s History Month? It should run for weeks, like a regular movie, then perhaps go on Pay Per View.

Also, I’m concerned about both the way women’s issues were framed and the uniformity of solutions offered. I understand the need to “package” a few simple concepts for mass consumption, and I appreciate the common sense of the “top down, bottom up” approach advocated by both Kristof and CARE: Work to change laws, while doing public-education campaigns that deeply involve people from the affected communities/cultures.

“Education, eduction, education” is the call. Yes, it’s vital that girls be able to go to school. As Gayle pointed out in a speech at Spelman College a couple of years ago, “Each extra year of primary education that a girl receives boosts her wages later in life by 10 to 20 percent; Children of mothers who attend at least five years of school are 40 percent more likely to survive past their fifth birthday; A study in Kenya found that crop yields could rise by more than 20 percent if female farmers had the same education and decision-making authority as men.” More questionable is the idea of “educating” the oppressors –that if we inform people of what’s right and fair, they will change. As with so many intransigent issues, knowledge of the facts or access to morally persuasive arguments is not always effective in eliminating entrenched, culturally reinforced behaviors.

Also, I’m a little skeptical of Kristof’s neoliberal capitalist perspective on why educating girls is important. As he argues in his bestselling book and Times columns, better educated women become both producers and consumers, growing the economy, which helps both families and nations. Yes, but it’s not that simple, especially in the context of fighting global warming, itself a great threat to women and children. I guess I’d like a better reason to grant women full human rights than the fact that there’s money to be made.

Sometimes, the film’s message skirted the edge of us-and-them. On one hand, it seemed to say, there’s the developing world of Africa, remote corners of Asia and the Middle East, wracked with poverty, domestic violence, and blatant discrimination. On the other, there’s the developed world, a more enlightened place where “we” live; thus, we need to help and enlighten “them.” In fact, poverty, domestic violence and blatant discrimination still exist in the good old USA, and the more humility and curiosity we can bring to our work in the developing world, the more helpful we’re likely to be in empowering women.

All that said, it was wonderful to keep hearing the term “equality” used throughout the event– a word seldom heard in public discourse since the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment failed. The film and book of “Half the Sky” and the work of CARE ultimately aim for a world where women participate fully with men, and public events like the one held March 4 will keep us talking about how to get there.

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