As singer India.Arie performs her song "Lion and Butterfly" for the first time at New York University's Skirball Center on a cold night in February, Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn watch from the wings, hanging on her every word. "She can remember hearing/ a woman's job is to be pleasing/ but she is the real thing/ and she knows/ a woman must be everything," Arie sings in her plush alto. When the song builds and the chorus hits, Kristof smiles, then turns to seek lyrical assurance from his better half. "Did she say, 'courageous and tenacious'?" he asks WuDunn. "It's 'gracious and tenacious,'" an onlooker confirms, but no matter. Kristof, along with the sold-out crowd gathered to watch the taping of CARE's Half the Sky event, is captivated by Arie's brand-new ode to the beauty and strength of womankind.
That's no surprise, given that Kristof and WuDunn's bestselling book about women's empowerment in the developing world (for which the CARE event was named), has just entered its 20th printing. In spite of racking up celebrity accolades from Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, a dedicated edition of the New York Times Magazine, and the requisite Oprah appearance, Half the Sky's message of "turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide" must go further still, if it is to push beyond critical mass into a full-fledged global women's movement.
This Thursday, on 500 screens across the major U.S. markets and in dozens of smaller cities and towns all across the country such as Tulsa, Okla., Davenport, Iowa, and Greenville, S.C., moviegoers will have the chance to see their favorite celebrities share powerful stories and songs (both heartrending and uplifting) from the book Half the Sky. These will include Arie's nuanced performance, and others by world-renowned Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo and talented newcomer Diane Birch, as well as appearances by Kristof and WuDunn, musician Michael Franti, actress Mario Bello, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and the premiere of a short film co-directed by Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei. More importantly, audiences will now have the chance to get up-close and personal with the real faces of maternal mortality, girls' education, cultural violence and extreme poverty.
There's the story of Goretti from Burundi, who received a microloan and started her own business (as read by women's advocate and Ladies Home Journal Editor in Chief, Sally Lee); Sakena from Afghanistan, who established an underground school for girls (warmly personified by Bello, a longtime activist); and Woinshet, the courageous would-be child bride and rape victim from Ethiopia whose struggles and triumphs Tomei depicts in her moving directorial debut (this is a must-see: there's a surprise at the end of the film). Fittingly, Diane Birch's jaunty piano ditty (which begs "Rise up, little sister") follows, and then WuDunn leads participants (including CARE CEO and President, Dr. Helene Gayle, and U.N. Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, Rachel Mayanja) in a lively discussion about women's issues. Kidjo, the consummate internationalist, offers a powerful acoustic version of the Swahili song, "Malaika."
No bra-burning, no grandstanding, no politicking or party lines -- it's simply an eye-opening event that will make many folks wonder, "How did I not know that, somewhere on our planet, one woman a minute dies from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth?" Or "I've heard about discrimination against women and girls, but I never knew that in some parts of the world, they must fight for the right to go to school."
At the end of the day, CARE's Half the Sky event is less about statistics, and more about heart. So, when the Duchess of York finishes the evening with a poignant piece about a woman named Prudence in Cameroon who lost her baby -- and her life -- it isn't celebrity drivel or a numbers game; it's a touching moment in which Ferguson recalls the difficulties her own mother and sister had delivering their children. It's also a whole new light shed on the Duchess herself -- she's a natural.
As the United Nations prepares events and celebrations for International Women's Day 2010, it's important to remember the purpose of the day: "when women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate and look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development."
Until women like Goretti, Prudence, Woinshet and Sakena can live in a world in which women aren't victims or second-class citizens, but equal beings with equal rights, International Women's Day will continue. So will the wonderful work of CARE and other organizations that understand the whole value and potential of women and girls. As for Kristof, my guess is that he and WuDunn will persist in meeting and inspiring more and more people all over the world who agree that women's rights are the most important cause of our time. It's a movement they're proud to champion. And the best part about joining the movement is that it doesn't matter if you're a Grammy-winning diva or a work-at-home mom; Half the Sky teaches us that every woman has a flutter and a roar. This March, let yours be heard.
GET YOUR TICKETS TODAY FOR THIS ONE NIGHT ONLY EVENT. IN U.S. THEATERS MARCH 4 AT 7:30 P.M. Tickets range from $10-$12.50 each depending upon your theater location.:
Writer's note: I was both an observer and participant in CARE's Half the Sky event. The taping occurred Feb. 11 and I was so proud to have co-written the script and directed the music for the event. The passion of the performers who participated (some of whom are my personal heroes) is going to light up the screen on March 4. I can't wait to see it all again!