I have been eagerly anticipating Pulitzer Prize-winning writers Sheryl WuDunn's and Nicholas Kristoff's new book Half the Sky. In fact, when a group of friends and I went to the Emmy awards a few weeks back, in their "swag bags," the traditional Hollywood goody bag for major events, I included a copy of the book. I for one, could not wait to read it!
At the San Francisco Airport on Thursday, I bought another copy for myself to mark up and underline. There are so many issues and statistics that I can source for my work. As I settled onto my mini-seat on the plane, I ingested the book. (Question: are airline seats another human rights violation?)
In the first pages of the introduction, we meet Srey Rath, a Cambodian teenager who, at 15 decides to go to work as a dishwasher in Thailand to help her family pay their bills. Her parents were worried about her safety but she convinced them to allow her this opportunity, and traveled with four friends who had also been promised jobs. The girls were taken to Kuala Lumpur and sold to gansters. In a scenario reminiscent of Indentured servitude, they were told by one of these thugs that he had paid money for them - the girls needed to pay him back. He assured them that once they paid him back, he would send them home. The girls were forced into sexual slavery, some drugged, some locked in brothels for 15 hours a day, tethered or naked so that it was difficult to run away. Stories like Srey's happen every hour of every day around the globe.
In Rath's case, she and four girls risked their lives to escape because, "We thought that even if we died, it would be better than staying behind. If we stayed, we would die as well." After escaping from this brothel, Rath served a year in prison for illegal immigration and upon her release was sold to another trafficker by a corrupt Malaysian policeman.
Rath's story is heartbreaking and all too common. Out in the open and in every crevice of the earth, human beings continue to exploit women and girls. We have an epidemic of abuse that continues to be ignored by governments that could help by stringently punishing the perpetrators. This is not about "all men are bad." As WuDunn and Kristof point out, these girls are being exploited by both men and women.
I have heard many stories of rape and exploitation from my work in Zimbabwe, Africa. Some of the horrific stories are shared in my upcoming documentary Tapestries of Hope. In Zimbabwe, men are counseled by some traditional healers, that if they rape a virgin they will cure their AIDS. It took me years to actually investigate this story, as I could not imagine that it was true. It was.
WuDunn and Kristof continue to tell the story of Rath and her determination to create a better life for herself. She is lucky. So many women never survive the physical form of human slavery. Many more are haunted with no relief from the emotional scars. As you read Rath's story, horror and hope cling to opposite sides of every narrative detail. So many other stories, movies and articles have been done to shed light on the exploitation of women and children. Organizations like Amnesty International and the Global Fund for women dedicate there existence to fighting these atrocities on the front lines in countries around the globe. It is these groups that should share the cover of Newsweek and Time magazine. Yet, many groups struggle for the funding to survive. I remember a movie that premiered at Sundance a few years back. This was the true story of a young Latino woman who was kidnapped on the streets of Mexico. The film chronicled her brother and her boyfriend's search to find her. She was imported as a sex slave and is imported to a man in New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey.
Larry King interviewed Mackenzie Phillips this week on CNN Live. Ms. Phillips is amazing, and should also share the cover of a top magazine for her courage. It takes incredible bravery to put your story out, to be criticized, to be accused of lying and open yourself up to be vulnerable again after being abused. The world is littered with alienated and shattered families from abuse survivors who finally speak out. I am so grateful that MacKenzie has had the courage to tell her story: a story that will help shed light on the rampant issue of child molestation by family members. What was so staggering about this conversation was that both Larry and Dr. Drew did their guest a huge disservice when they discussed the statistics on abuse. As the was talking to Mackenzie about her situation, Dr. Drew mentions that in drug and alcohol addiction often there is some type of form of abuse or trauma from childhood. What Larry asks how common this occurrence is, Dr. Drew gets a chance to share some clear statistics. At one point he mentions something like 25% or close to it. Larry King shouts out "Aw c'mon!" And Drew says something like, "Yes, I don't believe those numbers either. "
My turn ... Aw' c'mon, guys. Couldn't either of you have done a little research? Couldn't one of Larry King's staff member hand him accurate statistics? The way both men responded in disbelief negated reality and the seriousness of the situation. It also gives people a further reason to avoid or discredit the scope of this problem. A thunk on the head for Larry and Drew!
You are right, gentleman...the numbers aren't that high...they are higher. Current abuse statistics only include reported cases of abuse. One out of four women will be molested in the United States. Mackenzie's story would not be included in those statistics. Nor would mine, nor would many abuse survivors that I know.
Back on the plane I am underlying and almost shouting out loud in agreement, but at page 16, (XV1) I am sick with rage. How can we, as a humane world, continue to stand mute as issues such as sexual slavery, femicide, and infant rape infect the world? I wonder too, if the Huffington Post will bury my story.
Here it comes slithering up the surface of my trachea
Like some creature in the night
Searching for prey
Only it's me-cuz I swallow it down
Leaving the creature inside
It feeds on my already weakened soul
To save the weak from the truth
Slither come hither
I can't seem to swallow any longer
What will happen if you erupt?
I'll be out of control
So I swallow again, gagging
On what seems to be
Another meal of rage.
Acid burnings, dowry deaths, sexual trafficking, rape, molestation: the list is growing, and it is all part of the systematic oppression of women and girls worldwide. What WuDunn and Kristof do in their work is to continue to shed light on what happens to this gender when we provide them an opportunity to rise above this oppression, to thrive and grow and build successful lives even after trauma sometimes too hard to imagine. The girls lives can be changed and have a positive affect on their families and the villages in which they live. Think about it this way: Oppression into opportunity, slavery into emancipation, rape into empowerment. Addressing these issues cannot wait any longer.
I am so angry and overwhelmed with momentary powerlessness that I temporarily close the book. As an activist, I cannot even stomach some of these stories in large doses. Imagine others, who want to hide their eyes and minds and live in their own protected little worlds. How can we begin to change a situation that is often too unbearable to hear? The answer is with the girls.
The girls that determinedly find their way out of the stench of abuse, the girls that create a new life and pave the way as an example. I leave you with a link to some of these girls. Girls who rose above what happened to them. These are some of the girls that I met in the Girl Child Network's empowerment villages in Zimbabwe. At some point in time , the original girls created this song about their rapists. As new survivors come into the empowerment villages, they are taught this song. It is part of these girls refusal to be defined by what happened to them. http://www.tapestriesofhope.com/video-trs.htm
I have begun re-reading Half the Sky in bearable chunks. It is a powerful, tragic and sometimes hopeful book. I too am hopeful- that with authors like WuDunn and Kristof, the whole world will begin to rise up and say misogyny in any form is a punishable crime, that sexual slavery, mutilation or distortion of a woman's body for a man's pleasure is torture, that we as human beings get involved and realize collectively that we undermine our own hope for the future by what we are allowing to happen to half the sky.